WhatsApp is the world’s biggest messaging service. In total, more than 1.5 billion people in more than one hundred countries use the ad-free app to communicate with family and friends. Until 2014, WhatsApp was its own company and operated under the cofounders Brian Acton and Jan Koum. In 2014, the two sold the company to Facebook for $22 billion. With the acquisition, both co-founders joined the Facebook team. At the end of 2017, Acton left his role and the company in order to pursue his interest in nonprofits. Soon thereafter, Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal came to light and caused Acton to tweet, with little to no warning, “It is time. #deletefacebook”. Acton failed to provide any more commentary regarding the tweet earlier this year.
For the first time since the tweet, Acton is speaking up against Facebook. According to Acton, both Mark Zuckerburg and Sheryl Sandberg pushed Acton to monetize the app by showing targeting ads and using commercial messaging. Acton did not support the measure and in his words, he simply got out of the way. He walked away from the company before his final allotment of stock grants were vested, costing him more than $850 million. While critics may argue that walking away was not worth the money he lost, Acton has always followed a simple moral code and continues to do so this day.
While Acton does go out of his way to share that Facebook is not the enemy, he never fully developed a strong relationship with the company, potentially leaving the relationship doomed from the start. Acton never developed a rapport with Zuckerburg, despite them having dozens of meetings together. In many of those meetings, Zuckerburg told Acton that WhatsApp was nothing more than a product group, similar to Instagram. Thus, when he was called into Zuckerburg’s office after announcing his intentions to leave the company, he was unsure what to expect. Both Acton and Koum understood that they had the right to their shares of the company if Facebook began monetizing WhatsApp without their consent, but that process had still not come to fruition.
The alliance between Facebook an WhatsApp was in many ways doomed from the start. While Facebook existed as the world’s largest advertisers, WhatsApp and its founders hated ads. While Facebook adds value for advertisers by knowing a lot about the user, WhatsApp’s user base grew based on their encryption. Facebook wanted to barge through these notions and ideas around WhatsApp and monetize the platform in two main ways. First off, they wanted to show targeted ads. Facebook makes 98% of its revenue from ads, while WhatsApp embraces the motto “No ads, no games, no gimmicks.” Secondly, Facebook wanted to sell businesses tools to chat with WhatsApp users. Once they got businesses on board, Facebook wanted to sell them analytics tools. They even went as far to question and stretch the encryption code that WhatsApp was built on.
Facebook’s current plans with the app remain unclear. To this point, Facebook said that “messages will remain end-to-end encrypted. There are no plans to change that.” Critics, including Acton, are skeptical.