Will India’s Signal fever make a dent in WhatsApp’s 400 million user base?

Eye of a storm.
Eye of a storm.
Image: Rupak De Chowdhuri
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Smaller WhatsApp rivals are having a moment in the sun in India after the world’s largest instant messaging app got marred in controversy over its updated privacy policy. But the reality is that WhatsApp’s craze in India is almost invincible for now.

Over the last few days, several Indians have been flocking to apps like Signal and Telegram after Facebook-owned WhatsApp started asking users to accept a controversial new privacy policy furthering data-sharing with its parent whose privacy standards are also questionable. Even as the hue and cry on the internet are loud, experts suspect the switch is limited to a tiny section of privacy-conscious users and amplified on their groups. The masses, though, are largely unaware or unbothered.

“I’d say about 5-10% of WhatsApp’s current user base is going to end up installing a rival app (Signal, Telegram), but much less than 1% will fully switch—meaning abandon WhatsApp and move to Signal,” said Prasanto K Roy, an independent tech and public policy consultant. “Adding on to those few users driving the switch are some more who are panicking based on incorrect information, such as about all their messages and content being shared with Facebook or third parties.”

Two-year-old open-source messaging app Signal and its seven-year-old rival Telegram have been cashing in on the anti-WhatsApp frenzy but their popularity is still far from the Facebook-owned app’s. Like India’s biometric programme Aadhaar, which has become a mainstay of multiple government schemes and other initiatives despite the many privacy concerns around it, WhatsApp, with all its flaws, will likely remain a permanent fixture in 400 million Indian lives.

From family group chats to delivery updates from businesses, much of daily life in India plays out on WhatsApp. The app’s biggest strength is that it has built huge networks over time. “Once a critical mass of people are on board, the remaining people adopt on their own without much push or marketing,” said Kartik Hosanagar, a professor of technology and digital business at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. While the likes of Signal are getting an influx of new users, it is unclear is whether it will reach that critical mass. “It’s not there yet and it will need more endorsements from many other influencers,” Hosanagar added.

Rivalling WhatsApp

Signal and Telegram clocked 2.3 million and 1.5 million downloads respectively in India between Jan. 6 and Jan. 10. The former has even been endorsed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, automobile and space magnate Elon Musk, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Indian billionaire businessman Anand Mahindra, and Paytm co-founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma.

But keeping pace with this new popularity isn’t coming easy. Already, Signal said it was witnessing delays in verifying accounts and syncing contacts, among other things.

“Although Signal scores very high on privacy settings and encoding, the robustness of the system is under serious challenge,” said Vidhyashankar, head of corporate development at Chennai-based IT services company Ninestars Technologies. “Not to forget user interface and friendly features that we have been used to with WhatsApp.” Signal has been working to match WhatsApp with increased group video call participant limits and new chat wallpapers and animated stickers, but is that enough?

The expanding userbase will probably bring even more problems. “I already see some conversations that if Signal is not a concern from privacy aspects today, it will become one when they have scale as they need a revenue model,” said Harish HV, managing partner at ECube Investment Advisors.

Signal claims “there will never be ads” on its platform. Telegram’s founder, too, has said it will never collect private data and profile users. But experts suspect that stance will change as these apps grow. After all, these are not deep-pocketed companies. Monetisation will become crucial with time, and direct advertising is one of the best modes to do that.

“Given far lighter resources than Facebook-WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram et al would be hard put to woo businesses,” said Roy. “Unless they get acquired by a tech major, in which case the potential concerns would be similar to those for Facebook-WhatsApp.”

WhatsApp means business

While Telegram shares memes mocking WhatsApp and Signal takes digs at Facebook, WhatsApp is rallying behind efforts to clear its name and calm users.

“We want to be clear that the policy update does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way,” the company wrote in a blog post. “Instead, this update includes changes related to messaging a business on WhatsApp, which is optional, and provides further transparency about how we collect and use data.”

WhatsApp integrated businesses have found value in managing, running, and marketing business over the app—but that doesn’t mean businesses won’t move to another platform if the consumer base adopts it on a large scale. “Today, customers expect brands to be available on the channels of their preference, in the language of their choice, at a time convenient to them,” said Vartika Verma, vice president of marketing at Yellow Messenger, a company that builds chatbots. WhatsApp has been a successful platform for them but they are “constantly adding new channels” and Signal is on the table, too.

But any new platform will have to provide an ecosystem as holistic as WhatsApp’s. “It has to be inclusive of all spheres of business management including payments, security, mass reach and more for smooth execution,” Sonakshi Nathani, co-founder & CEO, Bikayi, a “Shopify for India” helping small businesses go online.

Nathani added it’s still “early to comment” on businesses moving away from WhatsApp. And most likely, they will add a channel, not swap WhatsApp out.

India needs better privacy laws

Even if the storm blows over, there is still room for reform.

From a safety perspective, WhatsApp is the poorer cousin. It encrypts chats and calls but Signal goes a step further and encrypts the metadata, too. And it has several other privacy-focused features, including an option to relay calls to avoid revealing the IP address, the option to turn on or off read receipts, and an option to turn on or off indicators to show when a message is being typed, explained Sukriti Seth, an analyst at Noida-based TechSci Research.

However, the world’s largest messaging app is not explicitly violating any data laws in the country.

Europe is already exempt from this new policy thanks to its 2018 General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) law. “Stringent regulations and clear guidelines on data sharing such as GDPR could have avoided this sudden shift (in India),” said Anand S, vice president, and Kiran Kumar, research manager, at consultancy Frost & Sullivan’s technology and innovation arm. Unfortunately, India’s data protection bill is still a shoddy work-in-progress.

Despite no framework or precedence, if the backlash continues, there’s still a chance Facebook will pull the plug on this policy update before Feb. 8, at least three experts said.