Q&A: WhatsApp’s Will Cathcart on the Facebook-Apple feud, WhatsApp’s new privacy policy, competing apps, and the debate over message “traceability” in India (Alex Kantrowitz/OneZero )

Q&A: WhatsApp’s Will Cathcart on the Facebook-Apple feud, WhatsApp’s new privacy policy, competing apps, and the debate over message “traceability” in India (Alex Kantrowitz/OneZero )

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

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 is the man in charge of WhatsApp, a messaging and calling app which has 2 billion users across the globe and is the de facto communication tool around the world. This episode of the Big Technology Podcast features an interview with Facebook’s Cathcart where he talks about the conflict between Facebook and Apple, the battle with Signal, the mishandling of its privacy update, the new laws in India that may require Facebook to break encryption, and how the company views content moderation and advertising.

qa whatsapp cathcart facebookapple whatsapp indiakantrowitz
qa whatsapp cathcart facebookapple whatsapp indiakantrowitz

Alex Kantrowitz: What is the current state of affairs between Facebook and Apple? The last time I checked WhatsApp in the iOS App Store, I came across 22 different data items that Apple says WhatsApp collects from you. Is Apple’s privacy label a direct attack on Facebook in your opinion, or do you see it as a backlash?

I do think it’s important to keep in mind that we’re competing with iMessage from Apple, we’re competing in the U.S., and we’re competing in a lot of places around the world – especially where there is a high use of iMessage compare to WhatsApp. Of course, we don’t just compete with Apple, we compete with lots of other companies. Whenever you download iMessage, you don’t see a label next to it since it’s already on your phone and you don’t have to download it, you already have it on your phone. We were critical of that, so we were critical of it.

Apple announced that it would put a privacy label on its website for its Messages app.

It was said that it would be posted on their website. If you are able to find it, it is available on their website. However, even there… Not to use this metaphor, but what is an apples to apples comparison? In order for us to be able to provide you with payment information, we have an optional feature for you. This feature allows you to make payments in India if you wish to do so. With Apple, you can send money to friends through iMessage through their payment features. There is a difference between the label on our envelope that says we have payment information and the one on iMessage that does not. I am wondering why the one we have says this and the other one does not?

Does Apple view Facebook the same way as Mark Zuckerberg believes Apple is your biggest competitor in messaging?

Apple obviously wants everyone to use iPhones, so I presume that’s in their best interest. Especially in a place like the U.S., where everyone has an iPhone, iMessage works better.

It’s easier for friends to switch between iPhones and Androids if people use WhatsApp or another service. I use Android. Putting me in an iMessage group with a bunch of friends breaks it, it’s kind of weird. It’s a strange experience; you can’t even like the messages. It doesn’t work for group video calls.

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

People shouldn’t use something like WhatsApp since they don’t want to use Android phones.

Are you guys in touch? Does Apple have a contact, or is it just press wars?

Yes, of course. We submit our app to the App Store, go through app review, discuss upcoming features. Developers get treated like everyone else, I believe.

You said you use an Android, but Mark is reportedly pissed at Apple, so what’s the deal?

The WhatsApp user base is very heavy on Android, so I use an Android. Despite owning an iPad and using iPhones for years, I prefer an Android because I actually want to use the product like most people do. Many people use both or switch between them because we build our products for both.

WhatsApp recently updated its app with a minor privacy update, which people freaked out about. Telegram and Signal were downloaded like mad. When this happened, your own employees didn’t ask, “Why do we seem so misunderstood?” Instead, they asked, “The Facebook brand is toxic, and how can we change it?” Can you see the problem? What do you think?

Your personal messages remain private with this update. We do describe some new business features we’re building to make it easier to communicate with businesses. People don’t have to. If people want, they can control.

I do not disagree that this wasn’t a big change, but the idea that WhatsApp might change its privacy policies set people off. What do you do with that?

It’s important that people have privacy when sending messages, and we agree. Often with skepticism from governments or individuals opposed to this level of security asking, “Well, do people really care about the privacy of this stuff?”, we fought so hard to bring end-to-end encryption across the globe, and defend it… “Yes, it’s important to people.
So, it doesn’t surprise me at all that people would be upset if they thought we were changing. It was a painful reminder for me of how important it is that we communicate this clearly to WhatsApp’s 2 billion users.

Why do you think people feel antsy about Facebook?

We heard in research that there was more confusion about what Facebook meant in this particular case. It seems that when people hear about Facebook and data, they don’t think of it as a company, they think of it as an app they use, something they enjoy using, but it’s a social network where their friends hang out, and their friends see their stuff.
Research and talking to people after what happened revealed a lot of confusion, including, “Will my messages be visible on Facebook??? Ah, so my data will change what I see or my friends will see??? People actually found that quite worrying, since Facebook is a place where many people are, and their friends see what they do. It wasn’t something about Facebook, the company, for many people it was the app on their phone.

Part of this reaction seems to be people’s nervousness about Facebook, Inc.’s privacy policies. Wouldn’t it be better to completely separate WhatsApp data from Facebook advertising data?

WhatsApp actually only uses a small amount of data for ads. We don’t see your messages, we don’t know what they are, we don’t have ads in WhatsApp. It’s not logged, and it’s certainly not used for advertising. Your group data isn’t used for ads. We actually heard concerns about a lot of stuff, but it doesn’t exist. I’ll give you two concrete examples that illustrate why we cannot just make blanket statements about ads. As you say, a blanket statement would be easier to understand.

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