WhatsApp co-founder admits to selling users' privacy' after sale to Facebook

By ANNIE PALMER Time of article published Sep 28, 2018

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INTERNATIONAL - WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton has admitted he may have forfeited users' privacy when he agreed to let Facebook acquire the popular messaging app for $19 billion.

In a wide-ranging and candid interview, Acton explained to Forbes why he left $850 million on the table when he abruptly exited Facebook in 2017, three years after it acquired WhatsApp.  

The interview comes days after Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger announced they would resign from the company to 'explore our curiosity and creativity again.' 

Several reports said friction with Zuckerberg had caused the departures.    

Ultimately, Acton's decision to leave rested on heated disagreements between him and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg over monetizing the app, he claims.

Zuckerberg and Sandberg wanted to show targeted advertisements in WhatsApp and enable businesses to communicate with users in direct messages - both of which Acton strongly disagreed with, given WhatsApp's core functionality of end-to-end encryption. 

Acton believed Facebook would never abandon its plans to monetize WhatsApp and felt he had no choice but to leave.

'At the end of the day, I sold my company,' Acton told Forbes. 'I sold my users' privacy to a larger benefit. I made a choice and a compromise. I live with that every day.

'...I am a sellout. I acknowledge that,' Acton added. 

Acton's grievances with the company that made him a billionaire first became apparent earlier this year when, in the midst of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, he tweeted: 'It is time. #deletefacebook.'  

While Acton was at Facebook, he had fiery standoffs with Zuckerberg and Sandberg over the discussions around monetizing WhatsApp.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Picture: REUTERS/Stephen Lam
WhatsApp's end-to-end encryption stood in the way, and Facebook managers questioned and probed ways to offer businesses analytical insights on WhatsApp users while keeping the encrypted environment. 

The report said Acton had proposed monetizing WhatsApp through a metered-user model, charging users after a certain large number of free messages were used up. 

His plans were shot down by Sandberg, who said 'It won't scale'.

In one meeting, Acton confronted Zuckerberg and said it was clear that the company intended to implement ads on WhatsApp.   Zuckerberg reportedly responded: 'This is probably the last time you'll ever talk to me,' according to Acton.   Acton grew gradually uncomfortable with Facebook's approach to making money, describing it as 'if it made us a buck, we'd do it.'  

While he asserts that Facebook 'isn't the bad guy' and that they're 'just very good businesspeople,' he ended up walking away from Facebook.  All Acton had to do was stay at Facebook one more year to claim his final set of stock grants, but he said he couldn't.  'It was like, well, you want to do these things I don't want to do,' Acton told Forbes. 'It's better if I get out of your way. And I did.'  

The decision ended up costing him $850 million because his final stock options hadn't vested yet.   WhatsApp intends to put ads in its Status feature starting next year, but said 'messages will remain end-to-end encrypted. There are no plans to change that,' according to Forbes. 

Meanwhile, Acton's co-founder, Jan Koum, left the company in April, which meant Koum could claim his final stock grants.  Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Forbes report.       


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