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I am the David going against the Goliath that I created: Brian Acton of Signal

Acton, the head of Signal Foundation and the co-founder of WhatsApp, on the swirling debate on privacy and the future of messaging platforms

Manu Balachandran
Published: Jan 13, 2021 11:32:54 AM IST
Updated: Mar 30, 2021 09:44:47 AM IST

I am the David going against the Goliath that I created: Brian Acton of SignalImage: Signal

The second week of January was a particularly busy for Brian Acton, the executive chairman of the Signal Foundation.

On January 7, Tesla’s Elon Musk tweeted “Use Signal”, a reference to the messaging platform app that rivals the likes of WhatsApp and Telegram. Soon after, there had been a steady growth in the number of users downloading Signal, making it a rather busy week for Acton, who heads the Signal Foundation, the non-profit behind the app.

The app garnered about 1.3 million global downloads on the App Store on January 11, according to app data and analytics website Apptopia. Acton, who co-founded WhatsApp, spoke to Forbes India about recent concerns over WhatsApp’s new privacy features, why Facebook may not withdraw from enforcing the plan, the need for privacy, and the future he has laid out for the Signal app. Edited Excerpts:

Q. The last week must have been particularly busy for you? Were you prepared for that?

No, absolutely not. When we started the foundation in 2018, we put money aside to help grow the organisation, grow the product, and improve the product. So, as an entrepreneur, it's immensely rewarding. They are beyond what I ever saw at WhatsApp. But we’ve been able to handle the load levels and increase capacity. Because you really want to demonstrate to the world and especially to India that we can run the product well.

Q. What’s the difference you see between the early days of WhatsApp and Signal? 

Well, in the early days of WhatsApp, not everyone had a smartphone. So, there was a natural throttle that you would go to the phone store. You would buy a smartphone and then you would install WhatsApp. Over the following five or eight years, people bought more and more smartphones, and WhatsApp eventually grew to over a billion users. There were natural throttles. In today's world, everyone already has a smartphone, probably their second, or third, or fourth one. And you're in a position where people can try out your app at any time.

Back in 2010, it was five or six phone platforms. Now it’s two, iPhone and Android. There are no Windows or Nokia or BlackBerry platforms. They're gone. So, it’s a different world. For us, it’s been unprecedented levels of growth. We’re number one in 40 countries on iPhone, in 18 countries on Android. I’m here to make sure we earn those users and retain them. I want to build a delightful product that protects people’s privacy, that makes sure they understand how their data is being used and if there are any data at all to be used. That’s why I’m so supportive of what we’re trying to accomplish with Signal.

Q. You mentioned how you are on top in 40 countries with iOS. How difficult is it to penetrate emerging markets like India, where WhatsApp already has an edge?

I’ll be honest with you, it’s quite difficult. India has some 400 million WhatsApp users and we’re not here to destroy WhatsApp tomorrow. We’re here to help people understand there are alternatives. And that if your privacy matters to you and it’s important to you then you should seek alternatives. It’s not that you have to use the same one that everyone else uses. Or, I don’t feel good about them having access to my photos. We present ourselves as a viable alternative that leads and innovates around privacy.

Q. But do you reckon that markets like India pay adequate attention to privacy, in comparison to many Western markets?

I've been learning about India and, in the last week, a huge public conversation has been ignited. I think that’s fantastic. That’s what we want. We want people to be aware that their data is being handled in ways that they weren’t expecting and not to be surprised that it’s being turned into monetisation. This is just a wonderful opportunity for us to have a public conversation about how data is collected, how data is used, what data is collected, what data is used.

Signal is in an ideal position because our answer typically is nothing. We have no data, We have your telephone number. But everything else is encrypted. We can’t tell you what you look like. We don’t have your profile photo. We can’t look at your messages. We can’t look at your groups. We can’t look at anything. No one else can make that guarantee. Privacy is important only until you need it.

Q. You are actively involved with the Signal Foundation. How is that shaping up?

In 2018, I joined with Moxie Marlinspike, the founder of Signal. He and I had worked together on bringing the first encryption to WhatsApp. I re-joined him with the goal of advancing what was back then called open whisper systems, and turning that into the Signal Foundation, and creating a proper non-profit organisation. But what I also did was invest $50 million for about three years. 

We’re approaching the three-year anniversary in February, and, this is the culmination of that investment. You hire more people, you buy more servers, you do the needful, you do exactly what’s necessary for you to grow your organisation. We have a brilliant team, we’ve fixed bugs, added features. We’ll continue to do that. And we have momentum. Momentum creates more momentum. We feel good about this validation and this opportunity to really shine and to show off our product. It’s not perfect. We haven’t built every feature. WhatsApp has status. Telegram has channels. But what we have is rock-solid security and privacy.

Q. But would those features tempt you?

I think there’s room for them to exist. All these features are interesting in their own way. I think for us to build them, we would always want to do them in a privacy-preserving way. I’m not a big fan of completely public products, because they often require some level of moderation as it relates to the laws and governances of various areas of the world. Different people have different stances on hate speech now and on nudity or all kinds of different areas. I don’t like having to make those rules and having to enforce those rules because they’re hard and they require a lot of people. We’ve built a system where your conversations are private to you.

Q. But, at some point, wouldn’t you consider monetizing? How can you build a sustainable business?

The difference between a commercial company and a non-profit company is that a commercial company works for profit and non-profit works to be break even, to cover your costs. We think about that in terms of running ourselves lean, making sure that we’re efficient with our servers and all of our cost structures in the same way that Wikipedia does. Wikipedia runs a global service and how does it survive? On donations and grants. It will be the same thing with us. The initial money that I put in was essentially a bootstrap. It got the foundation going and then our goals and expectations were to convert that into more donations, over time, and become self-sustaining.

But it’s important to underscore that donations are voluntary and our goal and our hope, and expectation is to delight the user. That’s the product I want to build.

Q. What has gone wrong with WhatsApp, a product that you built? Do you think there will be some reconsideration from Facebook's point of view?

They had this looming problem that they had to update their terms of service and privacy policy, and they have various goals and ambitions to monetise. Because they’re for-profit, they seek profit. And, they’ve constructed very complicated terms of service and privacy policy. And now they're struggling with the explanation of that to retain the confidence of the user base.

People are questioning it. People are analysing it. You compare that to Signal where our terms of service and privacy policy are very simple and it helps to underscore that we’re just about protecting your privacy. We're not there to try to figure out how to get you to talk to businesses so that you can buy something. We’re here to help you have private conversations. Private conversations are often the most critical and important ones in your life. They are the intimate ones, and we protect that.

Q. Are you happy about where WhatsApp is going?

I'm a parent, and at a certain point, your child grows up and they go into the world and they do things that you like and they do things that you don’t like. You have to accept it. I think I’m at that place with WhatsApp.

It was a wonderful journey for me to do that with WhatsApp. But I’ve moved on in my life and, to me, Signal is not only my passion, it’s my full-time job. It’s my life’s work. I didn’t go back into another start-up. I didn’t go sit on a beach. I decided I could do something meaningful for the rest of my life and that’s why I jumped into what I’m doing now.

Q. How much of a role can the government play in ensuring data privacy?

I think the government will always choose to write laws, especially democratic governments where people want laws for these types of regulations. Signal often ends up in a very positive light against these regulations, because Signal has so little data about you. We are automatically in compliance with most of these dated regulations. Classically, a good example is, European GDPR, where virtually we had to do nothing to be compliant whereas other companies had to do jump through hoops and build all these infrastructures to be compliant. So, I’m not often worried about the laws that come up. They get written because they’re usually biased towards privacy anyway, and we’re a very private product.

Q. Where do you see Signal, now that the three-year period is over, over the next few years?

I want to continue to build this flagship product. The Messenger is core to the ideas and principles of Signal, and when it gets to a level of comfort and self-sustainability, that’s when I would love to start to think about expanding the mission. But I’m a very focussed person and I want to make sure that Signal is a model of excellence first and can survive independently before I try to go tackle anything else.

Q. What would be those areas where you want to expand the mission?

The world is our oyster there. There’s storage, there’s email, there are groups and forums. I think the world could benefit from privacy treatment in all those areas.

Q. That would pit you against some of the most powerful companies and people, who you might know personally?

In some ways, I'm the David going against the Goliath that I created. I think that I stand on my principles the most, having been in the industry and seeing how the industry has developed around advertising and behaviour-tracking and user-tracking, I’m here to stand on my principles and present alternatives. I’m not going to just say the world should be a different place. I’m actually going to try and build the world a better place and that’s why I wake up every morning. That’s why I go to work every morning and that’s why I don't sit on a beach and sip cocktails.


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