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WhatsApp: How founder Brian Acton annoys Mark Zuckerberg with Signal

Whatsapp founders Brian Acton and Jan Koum

REUTERS / Mike Blake

On January 15th, Signal’s servers were running hot. Like the messenger service announced on Twitter, although new capacities were made available, then some of them had to capitulate to the millions and millions of new users. Two days later then it was said: “Signal is back!”

Brian Acton, CEO of the Signal Foundation, which is behind the messenger service, spoke to the news portal “TechCrunch” of a “huge explosion” in user numbers, after Signal had grown rather slowly in recent years. But now the “rocket” has started, according to Acton. The Messenger, which is very much geared towards the privacy of users, gained massive popularity after Whatsapp announced a change to its terms of use at the beginning of January, which, according to widespread interpretation, would allow greater data exchange with Facebook. Last but not least, prominent advocates such as Tesla CEO Elon Musk may also have helped, who laconically responded to the new terms of use on Whatsapp tweeted: “Uses signal”.

Brian Acton’s paths have crossed with Facebook for the first time. Together with Jan Koum, he founded Whatsapp in 2009, the messenger that he now runs some of the users on with Signal – and sold it to the social media group in 2014. However, three years later, he left Facebook, and not for good: His last tweet is from March 2018 and simply reads “It’s time. #deletefacebook “. The social media giant was just in the middle of the data protection scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica. With 50 million dollars from his private wealth generated with Whatsapp, Acton then set up the Signal Foundation in 2018, i.e. the foundation that finances the Whatsapp competitor.

Acton applied to Facebook even before Whatsapp was founded

The sale of Whatsapp and the current competitive situation via the Messenger Signal were not Acton’s only contacts with Facebook. As early as 2009, he and his colleague and later co-founder Jan Koum applied to the social media company after they had already worked together for the internet company Yahoo. Acton told the business magazine “Forbes” that he had had enough of Yahoo’s focus on advertising revenue. In 2006 he was involved in the launch of Yahoo’s advertising platform Project Panama and told the magazine that advertising depressed him. “Nobody has a better life because you make advertising work better,” Acton told Forbes. He and Koum also founded Whatsapp as an alternative to this advertising-based business model and initially financed it through a payment system.

Even before it was sold to Facebook, Whatsapp had around 200 million active users and 50 employees. Facebook paid a full $ 22 billion for Messenger. According to Forbes, they were initially promised a lot of independence. The Facebook leadership then put more and more pressure on them to open up new sources of income and questioned encryption in order to enable targeted advertisements.

Acton quit Facebook and waived $ 850 million

Acton finally surrendered in 2017, expressly due to disagreements over Facebook’s advertising ambitions. He left a lot of money in the process, as he left a year before his final tranche of the Whatsapp shares fell due – about $ 850 million. Admittedly, Koum and Acton had a clause in their contract that said that they would receive all of their shares if Facebook implemented monetization functions without their consent. However, Facebook’s lawyers opposed that so far only opportunities for monetization had been sought. These have not yet been implemented and therefore, they argued, the clause does not apply either. Acton told Forbes that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said to him at the meeting: “This will probably be the last time you will talk to me.”

It is therefore fitting that Acton and Signal are coming back into the public eye when data protection is being discussed on Whatsapp. The messenger, financed only by the foundation, boasts of its data protection and can adorn itself with recommendations from, among others, whistleblower and data rights activist Edward Snowden. It is therefore often used by journalists and activists and was of great importance in the organization of last year’s “Black Lives Matter” protests in the USA.

Acton on Facebook: “They are good business people”

In a blog post on its website, the non-profit company also points out that if a court summons to review its collection of usage data, it could only return “a blank sheet of paper”. And it should stay that way, because like Acton in his WhatsApp days, Signal categorically rejects advertising as a means of financing. Instead, the company plans to finance itself in the long term through donations, as Acton told TechCrunch.

But the entrepreneur also claims not to hold a grudge against Facebook. So he told Forbes: “They are business people, they are good business people. They just represent business practices, principles and ethics that I don’t necessarily agree with. ”And in a video call with“ TechCrunch ”recently, he said that he had no intention of overtaking Whatsapp with Signal. You can have conversations with family or close friends via Signal, and other chats via WhatsApp. “I’m not interested in doing all the things that Whatsapp does. I want to give people a choice. “

Nonetheless, Acton is painfully aware of the ramifications of the decision to sell WhatsApp to Facebook: “I’ve sold my users’ privacy for a greater return. […] And I live with it every day, ”Acton told Forbes in 2018.

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