File picture: Indranil Mukherjee / AFP.
File picture: Indranil Mukherjee / AFP.

WhatsApp rivals flourish as consumers seek alternatives

By Sam Spiller Time of article published Jan 17, 2021

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Johannesburg - Popular messaging service WhatsApp’s controversial privacy policy changes led to competitors such as Telegram and Signal seeing a growth spurt as consumers searched for alternatives.

WhatsApp’s policy changes have also prompted discussions and action from the government as governments elsewhere in the world scrutinise the policy of the Facebook-owned apps.

The Information Regulator announced it met regarding the revised policy and was engaging Facebook SA about the matter.

“The Regulator will be analysing whether the terms of service and the privacy policies indeed differ and whether the privacy policy,” it said.

On January 7, WhatsApp’s 2 billion users were confronted with a notification about updates to its privacy policy. The updates included how the app as well as parent company Facebook will process users’ data.

On Friday, in response to the controversy, WhatsApp announced it was moving back the date for users to review and accept the new policy to May 15.

“We’re also going to do a lot more to clear up the misinformation,” the company said.

A Facebook spokesperson said the company was committed to honouring privacy.

According to German data company Statista, WhatsApp was the most popular app in South Africa as of February last year, with 58% of the local population having downloaded it on to their devices.

In addition, South Africa was number 7 of the top 10 countries with the most downloads of WhatsApp from the Apple App Store in the third quarter.

The biggest change in policy that has upset users was WhatsApp being allowed to share the phone numbers in a user’s contact list on their cellphones, in addition to the user’s number.

Technology expert Brendon Petersen said: “WhatsApp would have already had access to your phone number, as it’s used to register and use your WhatsApp account, however gaining access to the phone numbers in your contacts is a huge concern as it gives WhatsApp and Facebook access to the phone numbers of people who might not have Facebook or WhatsApp and could be used for questionable and iniquitous purposes.”

Facebook, who acquired Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014, is under investigation in the US for allegedly violating anti-trust laws, using its dominance to crush rivals and monopolise the sector, and has long been accused of collecting personal data on its customers.

The WhatsApp policy update has prompted a mass social media outcry with many people saying they would move to competing messaging apps.

However, Petersen is sceptical of a mass WhatsApp exodus.

“By migrating to an alternate messaging platform, people leave themselves open to a fragmented and potentially frustrating communication system whereby they’ll be communicating with people across multiple platforms which each require their own app and log in,” Petersen said.

Telegram, created by Russian brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov, reported that in the first week of January, the app surpassed 500 million monthly active users, and in this past week alone welcomed an additional 25 million users, the majority in Asia and Europe.

“This is a significant increase compared to last year, when 1.5 million new users signed up every day.

“We’ve had surges of downloads throughout our seven year history of protecting user privacy. But this time is different.”

Signal, another messaging app, reported this week that device installations of the app had exceeded 50 million.

Last week, tech mogul Elon Musk took to Twitter to tell his 42.3 million followers to use Signal, a tweet then shared by Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey.

Shortly afterwards, Signal reported a surge in user activity that resulted in delayed verification keys to new customers.

Weekend Argus

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