A theme has been trending on social media over the past week in Hong Kong, which has come increasingly under the watchful eye of Beijing after a national security law imposed on the territory last year.
“We made it from ICQ to MSN, from MSN to WhatsApp. It’s not that hard to switch to another app!” The line refers to popular instant messaging tools that have come and gone over past 20 years.
The new terms will essentially allow Facebook, WhatsApp’s owner, to gain access to certain personal information, such as contact lists, location, financial information, and usage data.
Since then, WhatsApp’s rivals have seen a record-breaking amount of downloads.
Signal, a private messaging app, logged 7.5 million downloads globally between Jan. 6 and Jan. 10 following endorsements from the likes of Tesla CEO Elon Musk and former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. That marks a 43-fold increase from the previous week, according to Sensor Tower, an app-analytics company.
Another messaging app, Telegram, said it amassed more than 25 million new users around the world between Jan. 10 and Jan. 12, helping it surpass 500 million active users — compared with WhatsApp’s 2 billion monthly active users as of February last year.
Despite reassurances from WhatsApp that the company does not, and cannot, access private conversations as they are automatically encrypted end-to-end, it has failed to halt the mass migration.
Signal and Telegram have topped both Apple and Google’s app stores in several countries over the past week, including the US, several European nations, and Asian countries where WhatsApp is the dominant messenger.
“After seeing the long list of personal data declarations from WhatsApp, I decided to shift [to] Signal in order to protect my privacy,” said Kwok Ka-wing, chairman of the Hong Kong Financial Industry Employees General Union, adding that he is wary of the overreaching control of Big Tech companies.
Kwok is among the scores of activists, scholars, and celebrities in Hong Kong who called for people to abandon WhatsApp, which is used by close to 80% of the city’s population. Awareness for data privacy and security has grown in the financial hub following the widespread anti-government protests in 2019, when protesters used anonymous messaging apps to avoid police surveillance.
“The migration to Signal reflects growing concerns with privacy and security more in general and losing trust in WhatsApp, and Facebook, more specifically,” said Lokman Tsui, an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who specializes in privacy and online communications.
“Facebook promised it would not force WhatsApp to share data with them when they bought WhatsApp,” he said. “They have broken that promise.”
Tsui added that Signal, a nonprofit app that collects only the absolute necessary metadata, made it stand out in an increasingly crowded app field. Signal is supported by donations, including a USD 50 million loan from its co-founder Brian Acton, who also helped create WhatsApp and has long been an advocate for data privacy.
To bring more people to Signal, Fiona Wong, 26, a graphic designer in Hong Kong, has contributed to a public database that makes WhatsApp stickers usable on Signal.
“I hope this will provide more incentive for my friends and other people to migrate,” she said. “At the end of the day, the success of a messaging app only hinges on whether people around you are actively using it,” she said.
WhatsApp’s new privacy rules are aimed at facilitating advertisement placement on other Facebook-owned platforms. This allows Facebook to monetize the free messaging service that it acquired for USD 19 billion in 2014. Users who refuse to agree to the new terms that start Feb. 8 can only use limited functions afterward.
Hong Kong’s privacy watchdog has urged WhatsApp to delay the deadline and to “provide practical alternatives” for those who do not agree to the new terms to continue to use the service.
For now, Europe is the only region in the world where WhatsApp’s new privacy terms do not apply, as the European Union’s stringent privacy laws empowered authorities to fine companies as much as 4% of global annual revenue if they run afoul of regulations.
Yet in India, WhatsApp’s largest single market with a strong 400-million user base, some analysts believe it will not be affected in a major way despite the exodus being reported elsewhere.
“There will always be the more upwardly mobile, the more privacy-educated sort of strata of people which will move [to other apps], obviously, but we are not talking about two million users here,” Sanchit Vir Gogia, chief analyst, founder and CEO of Greyhound Research, told Nikkei Asia.
“Even those two million, by the way, are not moving out of WhatsApp completely and moving in to, let’s say, Signal or Telegram. They are adding on to it,” he said.
“WhatsApp has committed itself to India in a very big way and essentially established the ecosystem of content players, of commerce players around it which allows it to thrive in the country,” Gogia said. “Purely from that perspective, neither Signal nor Telegram has made any visible commitment to the country at all.”
Indeed, WhatsApp is commonly used by businesses in Asia to communicate with customers with many having chatbots tailored to the app. The company launched WhatsApp Business in early 2018 and has entered the payments realm in its two largest markets, India and Brazil.
Neha Bhatnagar, 40, a corporate communication professional in the Indian capital, said people in her contact list have started downloading Signal and Telegram in the past few days while remaining active on WhatsApp.
“I myself joined Signal on Monday just to see how many people I know are now on it and found that about 100 of more than 1,050 contacts in my phone had added Signal. But all my personal and official groups are still on WhatsApp and I intend to keep using the app,” she said, adding, “Why should I switch over? Data on your phone and laptop is already compromised [or] leaked whichever app you are using. There’s nothing called, ‘privacy.'”
Gogia, however, said privacy is a very personal concept. “What may be very private to you, may not be private to me.” He also noted that sensitivity to privacy in India is lower than in other Asian countries.
Digital messaging users in Singapore also have increasingly adopted rival platforms to WhatsApp, such as Telegram, even before WhatsApp announced its updated terms of service. But WhatsApp remains widely used. In a report published in February last year, data analysis platform DataReportal noted that 81% of internet users aged 16 to 64 in a survey said they used WhatsApp.
Su Lian Jye, principal analyst at technology analysis company ABI Research, said he has not observed an exodus from WhatsApp in Singapore.
“I think the prevailing attitudes that make WhatsApp sticky in Singapore are in the strength of WhatsApp’s branding, the ease of use and simplicity,” he said. “In the West, privacy and personal data protection are the main concerns. People are actively seeking out tools and solutions that prioritize these aspects.”
There are those in the city-state, however, who are looking to leave WhatsApp.
Justin Kan, 37, a financial adviser, has downloaded Telegram and Signal to supplement his use of the Facebook-owned messaging platform. But Kan acknowledges he has been unable to completely ditch WhatsApp because most of his contacts are still using the platform, with fewer than 30 contacts on Signal.
“I still have to use WhatsApp,” Kan said. “But lately, I have been seeing more and more people joining Signal and Telegram, which is encouraging. This means that many people are also starting to see the impact that apps like WhatsApp have on our privacy.”
Similarly, Wong in Hong Kong admits that she cannot quit all Facebook-owned platforms overnight despite privacy concerns, given the lack of good alternatives.
“But if the WhatsApp migration can sustain, it will motivate more privacy-conscious companies to vie with Facebook and Instagram and provide users with more options,” she said.