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WhatsApp is losing millions of users to these rival messaging apps

Published Jan 25th, 2021 6:50AM EST
WhatsApp Privacy Policy
Image: oatawa/Adobe

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  • Millions of WhatsApp users are flocking to competing chat services like Signal and Telegram after the company announced changes to the privacy policy.
  • The privacy changes will allow WhatsApp to share more user data with Facebook to enable e-commerce features like instant messaging to businesses. WhatsApp will not lose end-to-end encryption, which is turned on by default for all chats and calls on the app.
  • A new report indicates that tens of millions of people have downloaded Signal and Telegram in the first three weeks of the year, in response to WhatsApp’s planned privacy changes.

WhatsApp unpleasantly surprised fans a few weeks ago with a prompt informing them that the app will only work if they agree to a new privacy policy. Come early February, WhatsApp would share more user data with Facebook, and the only option for users was to agree to the change. The only way to opt out of the functionality was to stop using the service. WhatsApp is the world’s most popular chat app, offering iMessage-like features on both iPhone and Android. It’s Facebook’s only chat app that supports end-to-end encryption, and that won’t change even after the privacy policy goes live.

The response to those prompts was immediate. Many people downloaded competing apps Signal and Telegram in response, forcing Facebook to react. The company released more information telling users that its core features, end-to-end encrypted calls, and texts aren’t going anywhere. Instead, Facebook wants to snag user data that can be used for WhatsApp e-commerce purposes. Facebook also delayed the privacy policy change by three months to give people more time to understand what’s changing, without really explaining why it’s not offering its customers the choice to opt out from data sharing. Facebook acknowledged that not all WhatsApp users are also engaged in e-commerce on the platform, which implies Facebook could make the data sharing feature voluntary rather than mandatory. A few weeks later, the tally is coming in, and it turns out Facebook might have lost millions of people to Signal and Telegram.

The two chat apps seem to be the big winners following the new WhatsApp privacy scandal. Both of them work on iPhone and Android and support the same set of messaging features as WhatsApp. Of the two, only Signal has end-to-end encryption enabled by default. Telegram offers end-to-end encryption just for Secret chat mode, which has to be turned on manually for each independent chat. iMessage has end-to-end encryption turned on by default, but it only works on iPhone, iPad, and Mac.

Signal gained 7.5 million users globally in the first three weeks of January, according to The Guardian. The data comes from the UK parliament’s home affairs committee, who also said Telegram had gained 25 million users during the same time.

Data from mobile analytics firm App Annie shows that WhatsApp downloads dropped considerably in the UK. The app was the eighth most download app in the UK at the beginning of the month but dropped to the 23rd stop by January 12th. Signal wasn’t even in the top 1,000 on January 6th but shot to number one three days later.

WhatsApp’s director of public policy for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, Niamh Sweeney, told the home affairs committee that the exodus seems to have been caused by the WhatsApp privacy change. She explained the privacy policy update is meant to enable business messaging and “make clarifications and provide greater transparency” around the company’s pre-existing policies. She said the are “no changes” to WhatsApp’s sharing of data with Facebook.

According to App Annie’s director of market insights, privacy-focused messaging apps are gaining traction with users, Amir Ghodrati. “Messaging apps that provide privacy features saw the greatest engagement growth in [the first half of] 2020,” the exec told The Guardian. “These apps saw on average 30% more active users than the alternatives. Apps like Signal, Telegram, Wickr, and WhatsApp offer privacy features ranging from end-to-end encrypted data transfer to ‘self-destructing messages.’”

WhatsApp hit 2 billion users worldwide about a year ago, so the number of people flocking to Signal and WhatsApp seems insignificant. What happens in practice is that people use multiple chat services on the phone. Having millions of people download competing apps is one thing. It’s unclear how many of them have deleted WhatsApp or stopped using it after moving to Signal, Telegram, or a different service. Those WhatsApp users will need to convince their friends and family to ditch WhatsApp, too, before completely abandoning the service.

WhatsApp’s privacy policy change will go live on May 15th.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.