Big Technology

WhatsApp Head Will Cathcart Dishes on Signal, India, and Apple

‘If you’re talking about break encryption, it’s really hard for me to imagine being comfortable with it’

Will Cathcart

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Will Cathcart runs WhatsApp, the 2 billion user app that’s the de facto tool for messaging and calling for many across the globe. Cathcart joins the Big Technology Podcast to discuss Facebook’s feud with Apple, its battle with Signal, its bungled privacy update, new laws in India that might force it to break encryption, and the way it thinks about content moderation and advertising.

Alex Kantrowitz: What is going on between Facebook and Apple? I checked out WhatsApp on the iOS App Store yesterday and found 22 different data items that Apple says you collect. Do you see Apple’s privacy labels as a direct attack against Facebook?

Will Cathcart: Regardless of whatever the purpose of the labels was, we compete with iMessage from Apple, we compete in the U.S. — where way more people use iMessage than use WhatsApp — we compete in a bunch of places around the world. You don’t see a label for iMessage when you download it because you don’t download it, it’s on your phone to begin with. And so, we were critical of that.

Apple said it would put the privacy label for its Messages app on its website.

They said they’d put it on their website. It’s on their website if you can find it. But even there… Not to use this metaphor, but what’s apples to apples? We have payment information because we have an optional feature for you to use payments in India, if you want to. Apple has payment features and you can send a friend money through iMessage. Our label says we have payment information, iMessage’s doesn’t, what’s the difference? Why does ours say and theirs doesn’t?

Mark Zuckerberg has said that Apple is your biggest competitor in messaging, do you think Apple views Facebook the same way?

I assume it’s in Apple’s interest to have everyone using an iPhone, I mean, obviously, it is. And you look at a place like the U.S., most people have an iPhone, and the messaging experience works better on iMessage if everyone else has an iPhone.

If people switch to something like WhatsApp or another service it’s easier for their friends to go back and forth between an iPhone or an Android. I use an Android. When people put me in an iMessage group with a bunch of their friends, it kind of breaks, it’s kind of a weird experience. You can’t even like the messages anymore, it just says, “Like as text.” It’s an odd experience. If you want to do a group video call, it doesn’t work.

You’re the barrier to Apple’s lock-in.

It’s certainly in their strategic interest that people not use something like WhatsApp because they want people to not use an Android phone.

Do you guys talk to them? Do you have a contact at Apple, or is it just sort of war through the press?

We certainly do. We submit our app to the App Store, we go through app review, we talk about what stuff is coming. We get treated, I think, presumably like any other developer.

You mentioned you use an Android, and it was reported that Mark uses Android because he’s pissed at Apple, so what’s going on there?

Well, I use an Android because if you look at WhatsApp’s user base, we are very Android heavy. I also use an iPad, I’ve used iPhones for many years, but I really want to actually use the product in the way most people are using it, so I use an Android. A lot of people use both or go back and forth because we’re building our products for both and you got to understand them all.

Recently, when WhatsApp updated your app with a minor privacy update, people started freaking out. They downloaded Telegram and Signal like crazy. And when this happened your own employees didn’t say, “Why are we being so misunderstood?” Their top question in your internal Q&A was, “The Facebook brand is toxic, and what are we doing to change that?” Do you see the issue there? What’s your reaction?

This update does not change anything with the privacy of your personal messages, there’s no change in that. We do describe some new business features we’re building for people to communicate with businesses, if you want to. People don’t have to do that. People are in control if they want to.

I don’t disagree with you that this was not a big change, but the very thought of WhatsApp potentially changing its privacy policies is what set people off. How do you reckon with that stuff?

People care about the privacy of their messages, and of messaging, and we agree with that. It’s why we fought so hard to bring end-to-end encryption all around the world, and defend it all around the world, at times, with skepticism from governments, or people who are opposed to that level of security saying, “Well, do people really care about the privacy of this stuff?” Yes, people absolutely care about the privacy of this stuff.

So, it does not surprise me at all that if people thought that we’re changing, they’d be upset, we’d be upset. To me, this was a painful reminder of how important it is we communicate really, really clearly about this to the 2 billion-plus people who use WhatsApp.

But what do you think it is about Facebook itself that makes people feel so antsy?

Well, I think in this particular case, something we heard in research actually, was even more just confusion about what Facebook means. A lot of what we heard was when people heard something about data and Facebook, Facebook to them didn’t come to mind as a company, it came to mind as the app they use, that they use, and they like using, but it’s a social network where their friends are, and their friends see stuff that they do.

And a lot of the confusion we’ve heard in research and talking to people after about what happened was, “Oh, are my messages going to show up on Facebook for my friends to see?” “Oh, is there something about my data that’s going to change what I see on Facebook, or my friends are going to see that?” And that was actually quite concerning to people, because to them, Facebook is a place where a lot of people are, and their friends see what they do. I know some people obviously have concerns, but it wasn’t for many people something about Facebook, a company, to them, Facebook, the word, is the app on their phone.

It does seem to me that part of this reaction is just people are nervous about the way that Facebook, Inc. treats privacy in general. Wouldn’t it be in your longer-term interest to completely dissociate WhatsApp data from Facebook advertising data?

The uses of data related to ads in WhatsApp are actually quite limited. I mean, we don’t have ads in WhatsApp, we don’t see your messages, we don’t know what your messages are. We’re not logging who everyone’s messaging, and it’s certainly not used for ads. We don’t use your group data for ads. A lot of the stuff that we actually heard concerns about, it’s just not the case. I’ll give you two concrete examples where ads are involved because this is why we can’t just make a blanket statement. And I agree with you, a blanket statement would be simpler to cut through.

One is, we do have a lot of businesses on WhatsApp who want to advertise on Facebook or on Instagram, and instead of having people who see those ads go to a website, have them message the business on WhatsApp. And we actually think this is a great experience for people and for the advertiser because it’s hard to load a website on a low-end mobile phone, and a lot of really small businesses don’t have websites. So, they run these ads on Facebook where the button says, “Message me on WhatsApp.” You only see that ad if you have WhatsApp on your phone, and if you’re clicking those ads on Facebook, obviously that changes the ads that you see on Facebook.

Another one is, if you message with businesses, we don’t have the data, but they do, they know who you’re messaging. And it’s possible for businesses to go run ad campaigns on Google or Facebook, or send you emails, or send you letters based on that. So, it’s hard for us to have a blanket statement, even though I completely agree with you that it would be simpler and it would cut through because there are these real cases now.

I’m not even looking for a blanket statement, I’m asking you about a blanket action. Doesn’t it put WhatsApp in a better long term position just to be able to make that break and say, “Okay, this functionality won’t be available to businesses, but now there’s no question about the fact that people’s data is just never going to be used for advertising on Facebook?”

We have so many people who message with businesses, and again, it’s a little hard to—

Right, on WhatsApp though.

The way we’ve thought about this is, messaging is different, messaging is private, in a lot of places, people do message with businesses, what’s a set of products we can build for people that they’ll love, they’ll be valuable for businesses, that actually do help us build a business model for messaging that is different.

One of the things we’re really excited about is people messaging businesses for customer service. It’s not an ads model, we charge the businesses per message for when people reach out to them, their ability to access the messages and answer it. And we think that’s really promising and really interesting.

I think we can do something that works that actually helps people with what they want — which is they do talk to businesses in some cases, and actually does generate revenue, does build a business for us — but in a way that works with the privacy expectations people have for messaging.

So, it doesn’t seem like you’re going to be open to revisiting that link between WhatsApp and ads on Facebook, which is a stance for sure, and I understand it in some ways.

Let’s move on to Signal, I’m fascinated by the rise of Signal. I like the fact that the messages can disappear on Signal in a few hours, that it’s encrypted, and we know our data is never going to be used for an advertising perspective. How do you compete with Signal?

Well, we compete with lots of messaging apps including Signal.

It seems that people are gravitating to the Signal use case, and I would imagine that if I was in your shoes, that would be the app I would be most afraid of. Does that resonate?

There’s a bunch of apps we worry about all the time, it’s one of the dynamics of messaging. People have lots of messaging apps on their phone, and they go back and forth between a bunch of them, and a lot of them are growing. Look, I think some of the things people really, really value about WhatsApp that we’re excited about continuing to improve and innovate on, one, is the privacy of the product, not just end-to-end encryption, as you point out, but I think increasingly there’s a lot of opportunity on how long messages stick around.

It doesn’t make sense for every message you have to stay on your phone forever. We think a lot about the metaphor for WhatsApp, is we’re helping people have a conversation with someone else as if they were face-to-face, we don’t walk around in the world carrying tape recorders.

Exactly.

So, we were really excited about disappearing messages. I think there’s a lot more we can do there. I think there’s a lot we can innovate on that will be really, really exciting for people, so we’re working on that.

Is that going to come to Messenger by the way? I know that’s not your product.

Messenger has been innovating on things in the space of ephemerality as well, I think they launched a feature called Vanish Mode, for example. So, I think you’ll see a lot in both…

That’s nice.

I think it really is the next frontier on what people care about on privacy. And I think people really, really care about in their messaging service is reliability, and you don’t see this as much with any individual launch that anyone makes, or an announcement that we make, but behind the scenes, there’s so much work on how do you make sure your messaging apps work really, really quickly, the message gets through every single time, it works on a really, really inexpensive phone all around the world? A lot of WhatsApp success, I would argue, is that in a lot of the places we’re popular, it works for everyone all the time. And I think that’s really, really important.

And then, another whole aspect, I think what people really care about is the simplicity of the product. For a lot of people, WhatsApp is their first experience using not just like a mobile application, but using anything related to the internet as a whole. I did a user research session in Guadalajara where I was with a 50-year-old woman in a one-room house in a town a couple of hours outside of Guadalajara with intermittent power, and her kids had just bought her her first smartphone, and it was the first time she’d ever used anything on the internet at all. They did it so they could talk to her on WhatsApp.

Must’ve been pretty amazing to be there.

Yeah, unbelievable. It’s so humbling to get to hear what they like about your product, also hear what you’ve gotten wrong, or what’s still too hard, or still too complicated, and improvements we need to make. But I think we have so much opportunity to keep innovating along all those dimensions.

With disappearing messages, we worked really, really, really hard to make it simple, to make it something that anyone can turn on and understand, and there’s not a lot of complicated settings to get through. I think we have a lot more we can do in the space of ephemerality.

We’ve also been working a lot, over the last year, on calling, audio calling, and video calling. We’ve seen tremendous growth in people using WhatsApp to do video calls because it’s really, really reliable. It works on almost any network connection. Actually, something unbelievable, a quarter of our video calls are on a network connection worse than a dial-up modem, but it works. And we can make it really simple, and we can make it really private. So, I think there’s a lot we have that I’m really excited about, but is it a competition? Absolutely. It’s been a competition for a long time. I think it will continue to be.

I would have a red Signal alarm just being like, “This thing’s coming for us.”

We have a ton of respect for Signal. The end-to-end encryption technology we use is the Signal protocol. I don’t think we’re doing a good job competing and trying to innovate for people if we don’t have an alarm about every other messaging app out there, Signal, Telegram, iMessage.

Okay, last question about Signal, how do you guys feel about the fact that Brian Acton, one of WhatsApp’s founders, is very actively working with them, he’s funded them, doesn’t that hurt a little bit?

Not from my perspective. I think Brian’s great, I think all the people who created WhatsApp are pretty phenomenal. I think it’s cool to see people go and continue to do more things to push the industry in tech, I think that’s a good thing. It’s pretty common that a lot of people I’ve worked with at Facebook over the years have gone on to do other really cool things. And look, it’s a competitive space, I think it’s good.

Yeah. Okay.

Would my job be easier if no one else worked on messaging? Sure. But that’s not the world, the world is people go and innovate, and that’s good.

Let’s go to content. A lot of people want to influence the content that can appear on social apps. Right now, the Indian government is working on some new laws that would potentially make you trace back the first person who said something that it finds problematic, which could break WhatsApp’s encryption.

If that comes to that, would you break encryption on WhatsApp, or would you just leave India?

It hot off the presses, so we’re still digesting them and understanding what they actually mean, or don’t mean. For this concept of traceability, the problem is, today, we don’t keep a record of the messages that got sent all around WhatsApp. We get your message, and then we deliver it. And to keep a record, there’s this hard question of how you do it. How are you keeping a record on the server of messages that got sent around without knowing what the messages are? There’s no easy way to do that.

Or, how do you change WhatsApp and messaging apps so it’s included with the message? If I sent you a message and you forwarded on, should it say that it started from Will? Should you be able to easily forward on, “Well, Will sent this message to me,” and just send that on to everyone else? There’s privacy implications of that.

So, we’ve been pretty opposed to it… We’ve been consistently opposed to it. There’s actually been an ongoing conversation in India and Brazil and some other places.

For a couple of years now.

And we’ve fought it. We have court cases in India fighting on it. So, we’ve explained this to the government. We’ve explained why we have concerns about it, we’ll stand up, and continue to explain those concerns. Our hope is that we can find a way to end up with solutions that don’t touch encryption. The core origin of this idea came out of concerns over misinformation. I mean, we share concerns over misinformation. Over the last couple of years, we’ve made a lot of changes to WhatsApp to stress the fact that we don’t want it to be a broadcast messaging platform, we don’t want this to be a platform where people go and get messages out to millions of people. And I know you’ve written about some of these changes in the past, but we made a bunch of changes to make WhatsApp more private.

Let’s say you don’t win your court cases. What’s your decision, break the encryption, or shut it down? Because India is pretty big market for you.

Look, our track record on this, I think, speaks for itself, in that we’ve been willing to make some really hard calls to defend encryption. if you’re talking about break encryption, it’s really hard for me to imagine being comfortable with it. I mean, it’s hard for me to imagine even how you ask people to do that, I think it’s such a fundamental threat. So, we’ll stand and we’ll make our case, and we’ll argue. My hope is, here, we can find something that is not breaking encryption, that addresses the concerns that’s much more reasonable. That is a much more reasonable solution.

But if you do get there?

I’m not going to give you an ultimatum, like here’s exactly what we’re going to do anywhere in the world. We face this in a bunch of places, and we’ve been blocked in places. There’s a lot of places where we take the risk every day that we may just not be able to operate tomorrow because we might get blocked. But this stuff is hard, I think it’s really a question for the future of the internet in a lot of these places.

My worry on encryption in general, zooming out, is increasingly countries where it’s coming up as a topic of debate. In the U.S. in the last year and a half, two years, it came up a lot with especially the previous administration, and Attorney General Bill Barr, there were pushes to outlaw encryption in the U.S. I mean, if encryption gets outlawed in the U.S., obviously we’d fight tooth and nail to the end on that. I mean, what would that do for the whole industry, and for every encrypted app? What would that do for people’s security all around the world?

I’ve become very wary, probably like you guys, of seeing a government say, “We don’t want encryption,” because that’s just saying, “We want to be able to spy on our citizens.” I don’t like it at all.

We hate it. And I think it’s also important that… When different governments say it, it emboldens others.

One point of concern is that we might be moving to a splinternet, where instead of having a global internet, you have countries each with their own regulations, each with their own apps. For instance, the Indian government is pushing Koo, which is a Twitter competitor after Twitter, said, “Ah, we don’t really want to play by your rules.”

We’re only 20 years into the social media era, so this stuff is far from settled. So, what do you think about that?

Yeah, I think it’s a great point, and I think we should be worried about it. I mean, we arguably already have a splinternet with Mainland China and the rest of the world.

But I do think there is a risk that we end up with that in more places, in different countries around the world, or even different regions, Europe and the U.S., could you imagine regulations diverging in such a way that it forces a splinternet? I think people benefit a lot from products that, one, work globally. A lot of usage on WhatsApp is people calling people elsewhere in the world, or messaging people elsewhere in the world. I mean, a lot of the original use of WhatsApp was for people who traveled.

Even if you only use something with your friends inside your country, I think people benefit from having more choices globally. But a lot of the decisions we’re going to make on the internet, our governments are going to make on the internet over the next 10, 20 years, I think will really shape whether this is a global market, or whether each country has its own mini-internet with its own mini-apps. And I think the latter would be worse.

Do you think that banning Trump emboldened the Indian government to start taking stronger stances against American social media companies?

I mean, potentially, I guess I don’t know all the dynamics. A lot of governments, like the Indian government, too, have been trying to figure out what regulations they want in this space, what stances they want to take, and I don’t think that’s new. I don’t think that we suddenly went from none of that conversation to a bunch in a few weeks. We’ve been having the conversation about traceability in India for a couple of years with court cases, et cetera. So, I don’t totally think that’s new. Did it affect the trend? Maybe.

But I think the core trend here is every country trying to figure out what regulations they want, and those diverging in different places, and some of those… I mean, look, I think regulation can be a very good thing depending on what it is, but that doesn’t mean I agree with all of it. So, some of it, I think, is also worrying regulation in different places. I mean, regulation that weakens encryption, I’m worried about anywhere.

We’ve talked about content moderation. I have this thing that I call “Outputs vs. the Machine,” where so much of the focus is on the stuff that the platform spit out, and very little on the way that the products are designed, which has a big impact in terms of what people are doing on them. That’s why I found WhatsApp’s message forwarding limit fascinating because broadcast platforms like Facebook and Twitter basically run off the share and the retweet button, where people pass things on with very little context.

When you limited message forwards — which is essentially WhatsApp’s version of the share button — I felt like was kind of an admission maybe, that sometimes this fast, seamless virality isn’t always good, which is unbelievable coming from inside Facebook.

Harvard lecturer Evelyn Douek also asked, “What data do you have on how restricting forwarding impacted how your service was used?” I’d love to know how that’s working out.

We think private messaging is different than social media large forum. Mark sometimes uses the metaphor publicly of a town square in the living room, but we just think those are different. And so, we do think the product should work differently. We don’t want WhatsApp to be a place where someone goes because they want to get a message out to a billion people. We want WhatsApp to be a place where you talk to people. It’s true that when you talk to people, they might talk to others, or you might talk in a group, and so there’s not like a perfect bright line. But what we decided was that if I talk to you, it makes sense for you to go forward or share something about what you learned from me to other people, but does it make sense for you to in one click share it to a thousand people? No, that just doesn’t feel like it fits correctly for WhatsApp.

On top of that, yes, there’s a dynamic where we don’t see the content. We don’t know what you’re saying, we don’t think we should, that’s why we think end-to-end encryption is really good. But it also means then, we’re looking at changes that are about the machine instead of the output to use your metaphor. So, we’ve actually restricted forwarding multiple times.

In pretty big ways.

We restricted from you can forward to a lot of threads at once, now you can forward to five threads at once. That reduced forwarding by about 25% globally at the time. The more recent change we made, is a concept called a highly forwarded message. We don’t see the message, we’re not tracking who you’re sending it to, but we do know how many hops a message has been forwarded, and after it’s been forwarded five hops, we tell you it’s been forwarded a lot because we want people to have that information themselves to know that this might have been viral, so they could change what they’re thinking about it.

We actually got rid of the quick forward button altogether, and if you do go and forward it, you can only forward it to one thread. Now we made that change at the start of Covid when we started to hear from people about, “I’m getting a lot more stuff forwarded to me about Covid,” and that cut highly forwarded messages by 70%, which is pretty big.

It’s huge.

Now where the forward button used to be, the quick forward button used to be is a search Google button in many languages. We worked with Google on this. And the idea is if something’s been forwarded around a bunch, and I forward it to you, maybe the easiest thing you should do should be to go learn more about it, rather than the easiest thing for you to do should be to pass it on. And I think that’s actually really exciting because it gives you control.

You mentioned Covid. You’re going to make these limits to limit Covid misinformation. Don’t you think that limiting the sharing function on Facebook to some extent might also solve some of the issues that we see there in terms of hate, or sensationalism, or misinformation?

I mean, there’s hard trade-offs involved in all of this. When I say that highly forwarded messages dropped by 70% on WhatsApp, I don’t know that that’s all misinformation or bad stuff. I actually bet there’s a lot of stuff in there that if we knew what it was, we’d say, “Oh, it’s kind of a shame.”

Some funny memes.

Funny memes, or important good information, or information about a crisis, or information challenging the governments, so I think there’s hard trade-offs here. For me, some of it is about, what do you want the product to be? I do think a private messaging service is different than a large public social network. I don’t think end-to-end encryption would be appropriate for a large public social network either. I think you do want large public social networks for people to able to reach more people, but I think you also do want to know… have the ability to have content moderation in that environment.

It sounds like you’re generally more comfortable with approaches that just make it harder for information to get around than approaches where you’re trying to sift through and decide which information passes a content policy or has a social issue, which is fair. Those are hard questions, and then it means people are deciding, but the downside, if you go that route, is you’re also making it harder for information to get around. And I do think it’s useful for there to be products where people can get information out. I think that’s actually a powerful thing, it has a lot of good too.

I’m definitely in favor of more friction. It’s the internet, right? So, just to copy and paste takes a handful of seconds. So, it’s not the ending of information being circulated, but it is potentially people being forced to take a couple more seconds to think and decide whether that’s what they want to pass along, and actually have to put it under their own names. But it is a conversation, I value hearing your perspective on it, honestly, and I appreciate you listening to mine.

Oh, of course.

Okay. Last question. When I asked on Twitter, “What do you want to know about WhatsApp?” People really wanted to know what’s going on with WhatsApp in the U.S. It’s used incredibly highly elsewhere, not deeply here in the U.S., do you have a quick thought on that?

This gets to some of what we talked about, about the history and Apple…

So, it’s the iPhones.

I think iPhones are a huge part of it. I think some of it, it’s the history too. WhatsApp was released in 2009, and that was actually right after it was first possible on an iPhone to have an app in the app store that had push notifications, which you kind of need for a messaging app. So, the iPhone was out for a couple of years with the ability to message and send people a message, but no alternative. And iPhones did pretty well in the U.S. in those couple of years. So, a lot of people got them and they got used to messaging and using iMessage.

The second thing which I think happened has to do with cost. A lot of WhatsApp’s early appeal was that it was free, or really actually, it was paid cheaply, but free at the margin, free for any individual message you sent. And then, later after joining Facebook became completely free. And in the U.S., most people paid like $5 a month or $10 a month for a texting plan that was unlimited, which is a lot of money compared to free. But at least once you’ve paid that, you don’t think each next message I’m sending I have to think about it. In most of the world, it didn’t work that way. In most of the world, you had to pay 10 cents a message, or 20 cents a message, or God knows what for an international call, or an international message.

So, WhatsApp was just a game-changer because it saves you money. Whereas in the U.S., there was less of a dynamic, and more people had gotten iPhones, and they’d gotten more locked-in to iMessage, and some of that’s carried through. Even to this day, I think the U.S. is probably one of the countries where the highest share of people use iPhones instead of Androids, and they use iMessage. But that doesn’t mean we don’t hold out hope that we can entice more people to try WhatsApp in the U.S. We do see a lot of good usage for people who have international contacts, people in other countries who want to do free international calls, want to send messages internationally, or people who know a lot of people on Androids.

As we conclude, I want to say, there’s been a movement among some folks in the tech industry to pull back from engaging with journalism and not take tough questions, and I think it’s a testament to your character and the way that you guys run the company that you’re willing to come on here and take some tough ones, and I do appreciate it.

Silicon Valley-based journalist covering Big Tech and society. Subscribe to my newsletter here: https://bigtechnology.substack.com.

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