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WhatsApp boss exits, possibly over privacy concerns, but we’re not convinced

WhatsApp has 500 million users

WhatsApp founder Jan Koum is exiting the Facebook family under the guise of privacy concerns, but he might just have gotten all of his bonus.

Using the social media platform to convey his message, Koum did not give any details, though sources close to the matter claim there was a disagreement with executives at parent-company Facebook over privacy, the use of personal information and the potential weakening of encryption software. This might be the reason, or it might just be a good way to justify exiting while maintaining an anti-capitalist image.

“I’m leaving at a time when people are using WhatsApp in more ways than I could have imagined,” said Koum. “The team is stronger than ever and it’ll continue to do amazing things. I’m taking some time off to do things I enjoy outside of technology, such as collecting rare air-cooled Porsches, working on my cars and playing ultimate frisbee. And I’ll still be cheering WhatsApp on – just from the outside. Thanks to everyone who has made this journey possible.”

The Facebook post followed a report in The Washington Post detailing the clash between executives and misaligned values between the two parties. The protection of the users personal information is a core value at WhatsApp, and part of the reason so many have flocked to the service. Back in 2014 when Facebook bought the service, WhatsApp posted a blog promising nothing would change following the acquisition, though the WhatsApp values have certainly been eroded over the years.

Initially it was promised security would be maintained, personal information would not be used and advertising would not appear on the platform. In attempting to change terms and conditions in 2016, and introducing new opportunities for business to connect with customers in January, two of these promises have been compromised. Should the rumours about efforts to weaken encryption be true, all three values have been walked out the door.

As you can imagine, under-fire Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has done his best to calm the waters in replying to the post:

Zuckerberg post

In complementing the WhatsApp encryption advances, Zuckerberg is seemingly attempting to play-down any concerns the protections might be diluted. Zuckerberg has not denied Facebook is weakening the encryption software, but simply calming any potential euphoria. Right now is not a good time for news to leak to the press about weakening privacy protections at Facebook considering the scrutiny the platform is facing in light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

While it is very chivalrous for Koum to stand-down over compromises and erosion of WhatsApp principles and core beliefs, we can’t believe he is that naïve. Facebook is an information business and will constantly searching for new ways to improve the advertising platform. When the social media platform bought WhatsApp for a monstrous $19 billion, did Koum honestly believe it was as a philanthropic exercise? Of course Facebook wanted to access the user data.

We are not 100% convinced by these reports. Generally when a company is acquired, especially on this scale, the former management team are incentivised to stay to manage the transition and integration. These incentives are usually spread over a couple of years. Considering it has been 3.5 years since the acquisition was completed, we wonder whether Koum has realised all of his transition bonuses and now just wants out. Jumping on the ‘Facebook is a privacy monster’ train might just be a way to save face. He’s doing it for moral reasons, not because he’s got as much money as possible out of the situation.

In martyring himself, Koum has likely removed one of the final hurdles the Facebook advertising machine had in harvesting the personal information vaults of WhatsApp. Some might argue Facebook has destroyed the principles of the brand, but Koum and co-founder Brian Acton told us how much their values are worth; $19 billion. Considering the reasons for creating WhatsApp in the first place, privacy and a disdain for ads, Koum and Acton effectively did a deal with the devil.

Reports might claim he is making a moral stance against the company, but the high-horse is simply trotting Koum away from any responsibility while dragging the loot over the principles of WhatsApp which now lay tattered and tarnished in the dirt.

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