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Why WhatsApp's Brian Acton told us all to delete Facebook

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On September 17th of last year, WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton quit the company to start a nonprofit
 
September 26 · Issue #214 · View online
The Interface
On September 17th of last year, WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton quit the company to start a nonprofit foundation. Six months later, after several former Facebook executives had come forward to criticize the company, Acton tweeted “It is time. #deletefacebook.” Ever since, we’ve wondered what exactly led him to tweet.
Now we know. In his first interview since leaving Facebook, Acton told Forbes’ Parmy Olson that he felt betrayed by the company in two ways. One, Acton believes Facebook misled European Union regulators about its plans to commingle WhatsApp and Facebook data so as to improve its ad targeting capabilities. Two, Facebook began to “explore” advertising-based revenue models for WhatsApp without the founders’ consent. In both cases, Acton felt that Facebook had made him look like a liar. And so he quit, leaving behind $850 million in unvested stock.
“At the end of the day, I sold my company,” Acton told Forbes. “I am a sellout. I acknowledge that.”
On Twitter, pundits mostly rolled their eyes at Acton’s change of heart. Kara Swisher, quoting an unnamed source, offered the funniest parody of Acton’s mea culpa: "I live with this guilt every day on this beachfront property here in Fiji. I can barely see my brand new 200 ft yacht out there in the harbor through the tears I’m shedding for my users’ privacy.”
But not everyone thought it was funny.
David Marcus, who used to lead Facebook Messenger and now runs the company’s experimental blockchain division, was galled by Acton’s chutzpah. In a remarkable post, Marcus filled in what he called “the other side of the story” — which is that the WhatsApp founders had very few workable ideas for repaying the $22 billion that Mark Zuckerberg spent to acquire the company, and in any case they didn’t seem to be working very hard on any of them. Marcus writes:
During this time, it became pretty clear that while advocating for business messaging, and being given the opportunity to build and deliver on that promise, Brian actively slow-played the execution, and never truly went for it. In my view, if you’re passionate about a certain path — in this case, letting businesses message people and charging for it — and if you have internal questions about it, then work hard to prove that your approach has legs and demonstrate the value. Don’t be passive-aggressive about it.
Marcus went on:
I find attacking the people and company that made you a billionaire, and went to an unprecedented extent to shield and accommodate you for years, low-class. It’s actually a whole new standard of low-class.
The value of Acton and Marcus having this discussion in public is that both things can be true — and that each shed light, in their own way, on Facebook’s most expensive (and maybe worst-performing, from a return-on-investment perspective) acquisition.
Acton describes how eager Zuckerberg was to acquire the company’s fast-growing network of users, which was about to eclipse the global SMS user base, and to keep it away from Google. Zuckerberg wanted it to much that he made several expensive concessions, including a five-year (!) window in which he promised not to put any pressure on the founders to monetize their app. And he promised that the app would remain end-to-end encrypted, making WhatsApp much more difficult to monetize in the long run.
Marcus fills in some of the other concessions that Facebook made, some of which were first reported in a June piece by Kirsten Grind and Deepa Seetharaman. WhatsApp demanded different offices, larger desks, and a policy against speaking out loud in their workspace — which, according to Marcus, Zuckerberg personally defended. (The founders also demanded toilets with doors that reach the floor, for privacy purposes, a feature that the Guardian’s Olivia Solon memorably described today as “end-to-end encraption.”)
On the other hand, Acton’s account reveals Zuckerberg’s patience for what it was: a time-limited promise to wait out the founders’ principles. In a Twitter thread, Facebook’s just-departed chief security officer, Alex Stamos, defended Zuckerberg’s interest in monetizing WhatsApp. (And at the risk of repeating myself, he did pay $22 billion for it!)
“It is foolish to expect that FB shareholders are going to subsidize a free text/voice/video global communications network forever,” Stamos tweeted. “Eventually, WhatsApp is going to need to generate revenue.” If Acton and his cofounder Jan Koum cared about generating revenue, they presumably would have tried to do so before they left Facebook with their billions.
In short, the WhatsApp founders presented an extremely expensive pain in the ass for a company that, at least before this week, prided itself on low drama among the senior leadership. But Acton wasn’t wrong, really: Facebook wound up having to pay a $122 million fine for commingling that user data. And the fact that WhatsApp ultimately will monetize through advertising does indeed make him look like a liar.
If there’s a happy ending to all this, it’s that Acton eventually got to put his money where his considerable mouth is. He donated $50 million to the folks behind Signal, a nonprofit, end-to-end encrypted app, and is committed to finding non-advertising-based solutions to ensuring its future prosperity. Living your principles can be very expensive — but thanks to Facebook, Brian Acton can now afford it.

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Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and Brian Acton stories: casey@theverge.com.
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