SAN FRANCISCO – WhatsApp said Friday it would delay a scheduled privacy update as Facebook’s messaging service tries to stem an exodus of users concerned about the changes.
WhatsApp said it would push the changes back to May 15 from Feb. 8 to give users more time to review what was planned.
Many users and some media companies interpreted the notification as a significant shift in WhatsApp’s data sharing practices and mistakenly believed that the company could now read people’s conversations and other personal information. Misinformation spread about the service and affected users around the world.
Millions of people flocked to other messaging services, including apps like Signal – which offers so-called end-to-end encryption like WhatsApp – and Telegram, which offers some encryption options. This week, Signal became number 1 in India, one of the largest WhatsApp markets, on Apple and Android phones.
Now WhatsApp executives assure users that the changes are minor, that they cannot read users’ messages, and that the services are more secure than some of its competitors.
“WhatsApp has helped bring end-to-end encryption to people around the world and we are determined to defend this security technology now and in the future,” said WhatsApp in a company blog post. “None of that changes with these updates.”
Some limited information from WhatsApp is shared with Facebook, WhatsApp’s parent company. However, the changes to the WhatsApp Terms of Service to make this possible were made in 2016, and the Terms of Service have not been significantly updated since then.
The fallout reflects a rare misstep by the messaging giant, which Facebook bought for $ 16 billion in 2014. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, had WhatsApp act largely as an independent entity for years, backed by Facebook’s infrastructure and resources. During that time, WhatsApp has grown to more than a billion users – most of them outside of the US.
This approach has changed in recent years. Jan Koum and Brian Acton, the founders of WhatsApp, left the company in 2018 after a dispute with Mr. Zuckerberg. Since then, contact with Mr. Zuckerberg has become harder. He wants to merge the messaging services between Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, which requires years of technical work.
While Mr. Zuckerberg has positioned Facebook as a doubling of user privacy, some former employees fear that the integration could make apps like WhatsApp even less secure over time. WhatsApp is not yet connected to Messenger or Instagram.
The excitement over WhatsApp’s privacy changes is bitterly ironic given the company’s problems with misinformation about its service. WhatsApp was used to spread misinformation about elections in Brazil and other countries that were difficult to combat due to the closed, private nature of the service.
“There has been a lot of misinformation that has been of concern and we want to help everyone understand our principles and facts,” the company said.