Company / division: WhatsApp
China Effectively Blocks WhatsApp (Sep 25, 2017)
It appears that the Chinese government has effectively blocked WhatsApp entirely in the country through some fairly sophisticated and subtle means, making it more or less unusable for the population, an escalation over earlier partial censorship of certain content types. This is obviously a big blow to Facebook – we don’t know how many monthly active users WhatsApp has in China, and it’s clearly not as dominant there as in certain other markets given the popularity of the local messaging services, but it’s still an important market for WhatsApp given its popularity in Asia in general, and WhatsApp has also been about the only property Facebook has that’s operated in China even as the rest of the company has been shut out. The context here is the broader crackdown by the government against western tech companies and especially those that foster open communication at a time when the government is clamping down on dissent.
via New York Times
After the London terror attack, a top U.K. official says Facebook needs to open up WhatsApp – Recode (Mar 27, 2017)
This is a worrying (though not altogether unexpected) resurfacing of the arguments from early 2016, when the FBI was trying to get into an iPhone owned by one of the San Bernardino shooters. In this case, UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd (whose role has no direct counterpart in the US, but is responsible for domestic law enforcement and counter-terrorism among many other things) has made calls for WhatsApp to “open up” and specifically referred to encryption. That’s because WhatsApp was allegedly one of the apps used by the terrorist behind last week’s attack in London, though there’s no evidence yet that he used it to plan the attack or coordinate with others. The bigger issue, as with last year’s Apple-FBI fight, is of course that once the government can get in, there’s no guarantee others won’t use the same methods, whether that’s because of hacks like the one that hit Cellebrite a few weeks ago, or exposures of government tools like the Wikileaks CIA hack. Encryption is a fact of life at this point, and essential for secure communication and protection of privacy for millions of law-abiding users, and no government back door can solve the law enforcement problem without also compromising that essential function. And the Rudd quote in the closing paragraph of this story suggests she doesn’t actually understand the FBI-Apple situation at all, which is not surprising from a government official but worrisome nonetheless.
My Techpinions column today argues that Facebook has recently been trying too hard to force new features on users, and needs to tone things down. That’s mostly been the case in the Facebook-branded apps, but this WhatsApp change a while back was another example of replacing something users liked with something Facebook wanted them to use. The good news here is that the backlash wasn’t nearly as bad as with last week’s My Day launch in Messenger, and the company is already rolling back the change while preserving the new feature as well. It’s interesting, though, that both My Day and this Status change in WhatsApp were essentially clones of the Snapchat Stories feature which had previously worked so well for Facebook in Instagram. This cloning has been a story for some time, but the way Facebook is now pushing it on users is starting to backfire, which is a particular shame because the Instagram version was handled so well and has performed well too.
Yet another use for Facebook’s very successful cloning of Snapchat’s Stories feature in Instagram, this time coming to WhatsApp. This is also another feature-level attempt to take share from Snapchat, which again seems to be what’s finally working for Facebook, in contrast to the whole-app approach it once favored. In this case, Facebook is ditching the Stories name and instead putting this feature in the Status slot in WhatsApp, but it looks like the format is very much the same.
The reporting here is based on a Twitter account that claims to be looking into WhatsApp’s code to find hints about what the app’s future business features might look like. Facebook has already said it wants to take WhatsApp in a similar direction to Messenger, with more hooks for businesses to communicate with users manually and through bots, and these would appear to be early signs of that happening in practice. WhatsApp is a challenging property for Facebook in this respect, because it has always eschewed advertising, and anything that smacks of that direction will likely be poorly received by its users, so Facebook is going to have to tread even more carefully than usual as it pursues this strategy. On the other hand, Facebook didn’t spend $22 billion to buy WhatsApp just to shut off its only revenue stream – this was always inevitable.