WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton defended his decision to sell his company to Facebook for $19 billion in addition to encouraged students to delete their accounts coming from the social network in a rare public appearance at Stanford University on Wednesday.
among the guest speakers for Computer Science 181, an undergraduate class focused on technology companies’ social impact in addition to ethical responsibilities, Acton, a 47-year-old Stanford alum, explained the principles behind founding WhatsApp in addition to his fateful decision to sell the idea to Facebook in 2014. In doing so, he also criticized the profit designs driving today’s tech behemoths, including Facebook in addition to Google, as well as the Silicon Valley ecosystem in which entrepreneurs are pressured to chase venture capital in addition to large exits to satisfy employees in addition to shareholders.
“You go back to This kind of Silicon Valley culture in addition to people say, ‘Well, could you have not sold?’ in addition to the answer can be no,” he said, referring to his decision to make the “rational choice” to take “a boatload of money.”
“I had 50 employees, in addition to I had to think about them in addition to the money they might make coming from This kind of sale. I had to think about our investors in addition to I had to think about my minority stake. I didn’t possess the full clout to say no if I wanted to,” he continued.
Despite selling WhatsApp in a deal which made him a billionaire more than once over, Acton’s negative feelings about Facebook are no secret. He departed in November 2017 after more than three years at the company following tensions surrounding the introduction of ads onto the messaging platform, something he in addition to fellow cofounder Jan Koum vehemently opposed. (Koum announced he was leaving Facebook last April, amid reports he disagreed with the company’s plans for monetizing WhatsApp in addition to its approach to user data in addition to privacy.)
In March 2018, following Facebook’s data privacy failings involving political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, Acton tweeted a call to “#deletefacebook.”
Wednesday’s appearance, in which he shared the stage with Ellora Israni, a former Facebook software engineer in addition to cofounder of women’s diversity in tech initiative She++, was only the second time Acton has spoken publicly about the deterioration of his relationship with the social network in addition to its CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “I sold my users’ privacy to a larger benefit,” Acton told Forbes in September, detailing the conflicts which eventually led to his departure. inside piece, Acton described how Facebook had set goals for WhatsApp to hit a revenue run rate of $10 billion within 5 years of monetizing by pushing ads in addition to offering businesses ways to directly communicate with users.
While Acton didn’t discuss the specifics behind Zuckerberg’s push to monetize WhatsApp during his talk at Stanford, he spoke critically of business designs which incentivize companies to prioritize profits over people’s privacy.
“The capitalistic profit motive, or answering to Wall Street, can be what’s driving the expansion of invasion of data privacy in addition to driving the expansion of a lot of negative outcomes which we’re just not happy with,” he said. “I wish there were guardrails there. I wish there was ways to rein the idea in. I have yet to see which manifest, in addition to which scares me.”
In selling to Facebook, Acton said which he had a certain naivete at the time, idealistically thinking which he in addition to Koum could keep doing things their way by introducing a way to diversify revenue. He said he pushed for a service style, possibly by charging WhatsApp users a tiny fee to use the app, as the company did in its early days, to counter Facebook’s traditional revenue driver: advertisements. Instead of sucking up user data to help advertisers target ads, Acton in addition to Koum hoped a service style could align their interests with the users’ need for privacy in addition to security.
“WhatsApp’s business style was: We’ll give you service for a year for a dollar,” he said. “the idea was not extraordinarily money-producing, in addition to if you have a billion users … you’re going to have $1 billion in revenue per year. which’s not what Google in addition to Facebook want. They want multibillions of dollars.”
A WhatsApp spokesperson declined to comment on Acton’s statements in addition to instead pointed BuzzFeed News to a blog post coming from the company when the idea did away with the $1 fee in 2016.
In explaining WhatsApp’s early decision-producing, Acton said the company built the features which people wanted, including end-to-end encryption, which multiple users requested before the company eventually instituted the idea across the platform. He also recalled his early style for WhatsApp was Craigslist, a company that has a tiny number of employees which provided a public service in addition to built a successful business without raising venture capital.
Ultimately, WhatsApp diverged coming from which ideal in addition to raised $60 million coming from Sequoia Capital before selling to Facebook. which change in ownership took away Acton in addition to Koum’s decision-producing power, with Koum joining the Facebook board. which left WhatsApp beholden to shareholders in addition to Zuckerberg, who still maintains voting control over the tech giant.
“Accountability to shareholders absolutely drives the decision-producing in addition to skews the idea,” he said. “At Facebook, they spent an inordinate amount of time figuring out how they can get into China.”
Last week, BuzzFeed News reported which Facebook might no longer pursue a plan to push its social network into China, following the publication of a long note coming from Zuckerberg in which he emphasized a privacy-first vision for the company’s various messaging applications. Acton applauded Facebook’s decision to not place servers in China, in addition to referenced how additional businesses make Faustian bargains to operate inside country. Apple, for example, a company he considers to have a strong track record with user privacy, has servers in China in order to sell its devices to the some 1.4 billion people inside country.
“I think which a lot of these corporate decisions are made arbitrarily in addition to capriciously,” Acton said.
He decided to leave Facebook because of the arbitrary decisions coming from Zuckerberg in addition to company’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. While Acton noted which Facebook left WhatsApp alone for its first three years, his last months at the company was marked by the exertion of more influence. The WhatsApp cofounder called Facebook “a bit of a monoculture,” where he was the outlier. “I’d be the one guy inside room in addition to ask, ‘Why do we want to do This kind of?’ in addition to I might be looked at like I was crazy.”
Still, he doesn’t envy Zuckerberg, calling the Facebook CEO’s position in policing people’s behavior on the social network a losing battle. WhatsApp, with its end-to-end encryption, made the idea impossible for anyone to monitor what its users were saying, freeing Acton in addition to Koum of responsibility for what happens on the platform. “There can be more value to protect the innocents of the globe than the criminals,” Acton explained, referring to users in oppressive countries which rely on the encryption for safety.
While which utilitarian calculation downplays the negative consequences of an unmoderated platform, including the facilitation of the spread of disinformation in addition to the incitement of violence, Acton has held fast to the idea of not interfering. “I think the idea’s impossible,” he said when asked about moderating content. “To be brutally honest, the curated networks — the open networks — struggle to decide what’s hate speech in addition to what’s not hate speech. … Apple struggles to decide what’s a not bad app in addition to what’s a bad app. Google struggles with what’s a not bad website in addition to what’s a bad website. These companies are not equipped to make these decisions.”
“in addition to we give them the power,” he continued. “which’s the bad part. We buy their products. We sign up for these websites. Delete Facebook, right?”