WhatsApp and anti-capitalists: should you stay or should you go?
Jane Duncan | Amandla 75 | March 2021
Initially, Facebook announced these changes in January 2021, but backed down on implementing them in February following a huge public backlash. However, it has signalled its intention to push these changes through by 15 May 2021.
Many on the left rely on WhatsApp for information and organising. It was in wide use as an organising tool during the #feesmustfall protests and that continues in a range of activist activities.
To stay or to move?
However, many are also considering leaving the messaging platform and migrating to other, more secure ones, or have done so already. So, once the controversial new terms of service come into effect, should you stay and simply accept these changes or should you leave for another, more secure messaging service?
If you go, will your friends, comrades and family follow, or will you find yourself confined to the lonely wilderness of other, less popular, services?
What are the changes?
Before tackling these questions, it is necessary to look at what the proposed changes actually are, as well as the broader controversies around the service and other big technology companies that dominate the communication landscape.
Underpinning these questions are broader strategic and tactical questions about how anti-capitalists do and should relate to big technology companies like Facebook.
WhatsApp announced changes to its terms of service that would allow it to offer a broader range of business services, including making it easier to communicate with businesses. Businesses may, for instance, use Facebook as a technology provider to chat directly with its customers. Using these services is voluntary.
In defending these changes in the wake of the public backlash, Facebook conceded that it had communicated them poorly and that the public had misunderstood its true intentions. The company claimed that WhatsApp did not intend to share more data with Facebook and with third party providers than it already did.
What will WhatsApp share about you?
However, WhatsApp will not share data about their users in the UK and Europe. This is because privacy protections are stronger in the region than they are in the rest of the world.
Facebook has made it clear that they will not, and in fact cannot, share the content of WhatsApp messages. This is because messages are end-to-end encrypted, which means that neither it nor Facebook have access to their content.
But what they share is metadata, or data about our communications. Metadata can often say as much about us as the content of our messages, or even more. So the fact that they share “mere” metadata – coupled with the fact that we cannot opt out if we do not live in the UK or Europe – is disturbing enough.
The metadata WhatsApp is collecting and sharing with other Facebook companies includes account registration information (such as your phone number), and information about any payments and financial transactions made over the service.
WhatsApp claims it shares this data to promote integration of its Facebook products, and to improve targeted advertising. The more information they have about you, the better when it comes to selling you ads and services.
Users don’t know
What the controversy about WhatsApp has exposed, though, is how little users actually know about what information WhatsApp shares, and with who. Facebook has complained that the changes were poorly understood; but to the extent that this is so, then it has only itself to blame.
Facebook and the other big tech companies know that hardly anyone reads the terms of service of the apps or services they use. They are designed to put people off even attempting to understand them. As a result many, if not most, people just click “accept” and proceed.
But what the controversy has also exposed is how Facebook and its “family” of services are a one-way street towards greater integration, data exploitation and erosions of privacy by an increasingly monopolistic company.
These changes also expose the fact that even if you only use WhatsApp, you are now transacting with Facebook. Since Facebook took over WhatsApp, it has been trying to find ways of exploiting cross-platform synergies. In time to come, the impacts of monopolisation are likely to become more overt, such as when Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram messaging services are integrated.
After the public backlash, leading to millions of people giving WhatsApp the finger emoji and migrating to other messaging platforms, Facebook went on a charm offensive. It added more privacy features to head off its main opposition, Telegram and Signal. Telegram has fewer privacy protections than Signal, so it has been relatively easy for Facebook to wage a propaganda war against it.
Signal has proved to be a trickier opponent, though. WhatsApp’s 2016 introduction of end-to-end encryption was an attempt to hold onto its increasingly privacy conscious user base. However, as Signal is built on an open source platform, WhatsApp, with its proprietary infrastructure, cannot compete on privacy.
In an attempt to address privacy concerns, it has introduced features similar to Signal’s, such as allowing users to set messages to disappear. It has also taken on Zoom by offering audio and video chat functions through its web app.
Yet, these changes do not remove the hard reality that Facebook does not respect users’ privacy: that much became clear during the Cambridge Analytica saga. WhatsApp will most likely ram the changes through, knowing that other services do not threaten the size of its user base.
What to do?
What should be done about the increasing dominance of a few tech companies, and their control over global communications infrastructure? Recently, this has been a fast-moving space.
In October 2020, a US House Judiciary investigation concluded that Facebook wields monopoly power in the social media space. It has become a monopoly by buying out its competitors, or killing them when it cannot buy them out.
In December 2020, the US Federal Trade Commission and 48 states and territories instituted legal proceedings against Facebook for what it claimed was its illegal social networking monopoly. They argued that antitrust action should break up the company, forcing it to divest two of its major business lines, Instagram and WhatsApp.
The fact that things got this far is a regulatory failure of epic proportions. These acquisitions should have been blocked in the first place. Regulators in capitalist societies are meant to protect the public interest against commercial interests. But anti-capitalists know that all too often, they actually do the opposite.
So anti-capitalists cannot rely on privacy or competition regulators as the answer, although they should still be contested. If sufficient pressure is applied to them, they may achieve significant reforms.
For instance, South Africa’s information regulator, which is so new that it still has to get out of the starting blocks, has written to Facebook expressing concerns about its proposed changes. The regulator has stated that in view of the significance of the proposed changes to its terms of service, obtaining user consent for passing over personal information to Facebook is not enough. They need to obtain the regulator’s consent, too. They have also objected to the fact that Europeans enjoy higher privacy protections than South Africans.
The regulator’s positions are good ones. Clearly, they realise that in the circumstances user consent is meaningless as the “choice” is really non-existent. Either you accept the new terms of service or you stop using WhatsApp and the vital service it offers.
However, such regulatory interventions will check but not dismantle monopoly power, as such power lies at the heart of how capitalism operates. In order for that to happen, there need to be more significant interventions that strike at the heart of how communications are organised under capitalism. Breaking up Facebook is a necessary condition to address its monopoly power, but it is by no means a sufficient one.
As has become apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic, the big communication companies have become bigger and wealthier, and have contributed to growing inequality. They have become so powerful that they can influence (and have influenced) the outcomes of elections and threaten democracy. And they perpetuate racism and sexism through in-built algorithmic biases.
In order to curb these abuses of monopoly power, anti-capitalists must address the issue of ownership. The major communication companies should be put under public ownership and control. Not only should this be the case, but ownership should be socialised.
In other words, ownership and control should be in the hands of the long-suffering workers in the platform economy, and its users. This would create conditions for non-exploitative, anti-surveillance and privacy-centred terms of service.
Needless to say, changing the ownership of the likes of Facebook is a long-term goal. In the meantime, what do anti-capitalists do?
In the short-term, there is scope for people to make individual decisions that hurt Facebook in its pockets. The network effect means that Facebook services becomes more valuable the more people use them. Conversely, if fewer people use them, they become less profitable. These realities make the communication companies susceptible to consumer boycotts, but only if they happen at scale.
If you can get off Facebook’s services, do. No amount of tinkering with its terms of service will address the systemic abuses of its monopoly position. Move to Signal and persuade your friends and comrades to do the same. Organise on Signal instead of on WhatsApp.
But doing so may not be easy or even possible in some cases, given Facebook’s monopoly position. Even politically conscious people will need to weigh up the gains and losses of boycotting them. People shouldn’t be made to feel guilty or awkward if they don’t, as these services meet real human needs, especially during the pandemic.
The need for sensitivity is particularly important in the case of younger people. As devices and data become more ubiquitous across the class divide, many may not know a life outside their devices and social media. They may see phone calls as weird anachronisms from their parents’ or even grandparents’ generations.
Furthermore, persuading more people to change their online behaviours requires public education on what the issues are.
Anyone who has attempted to have the arguments about the political dangers posed by the likes of Facebook, will know the complexity of the arguments they face even within their own circles.
One argument is that if you’re not a politically exposed person like an activist or a journalist, why should you be concerned? “Free” social media services have enriched peoples’ lives more than they have detracted from them. If the price people have to pay is some of their data, then so what?
For popular consciousness to develop about the dangers, people need to realise that this “free” service is not, in fact, free. People pay with their data and their privacy. Getting people to see the costs of this supposedly convenient service is difficult but necessary. This would mean finding ways of making the risks less abstract and more real for ordinary users. Activists need to find and use practical examples of how Facebook has reduced rather than enhanced peoples’ quality of life. People need to be able to relate to the dangers more than they do.
It may seem like an impossible struggle to confront such a huge monopoly, based in the US. But in this political moment, Facebook is vulnerable on several fronts. As in any political struggle against capitalist power, doing so means starting from where people are.
Given how alienating capitalism is, people need to feel connected, and the pandemic has made this need even stronger. However, this very real human need can only be addressed properly when people and their innermost hopes and fears are addressed collectively in more just and caring societies, rather than being manipulated cynically in the pursuit of monopoly profits.
Jane Duncan is a professor in the Department of Journalism, Film and Television at the University of Johannesburg. She is author of Stopping the Spies: Constructing and Resisting the Surveillance State in South Africa.