Following its acquisition of WhatsApp in 2014, Facebook, as an ad-driven enterprise, sought ways to monetise it. Since it couldn’t introduce ads just yet, it built WhatsApp Business Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) in 2017 as part of a broader strategy to generate revenue. The goal was to charge big businesses and make it free for small businesses.
Mainly targeted at enhancing customer service for medium and large scale companies, WhatsApp Business' APIs allows companies to quickly and seamlessly respond to customers’ queries. Large corporations use it to reach users by integrating chatbots.
The World Health Organization (WHO) used one of these at the peak of the pandemic in 2020 to prevent misinformation.
Small businesses that couldn’t afford to integrate chatbots or use other paid advanced tools began using the Whatsapp Business app, rolled out globally in 2018. As a free standalone app, WhatsApp Business has several tools that help businesses effectively interact with their clientele.
One of such is building a business profile. This will include a business description, email address, physical address, and website visible to any user with access to the account. There are also perks like automated messages, labels, away messages, and the recently-introduced ‘WhatsApp Catalogs’.
The catalogue feature allows account owners to upload images of their products that users can view. Before its inclusion, business owners depended on status updates to display their products.
Currently, the go-to app for online messaging globally, WhatsApp remains one of the most-downloaded apps. As of 2020, it hit two billion active monthly users -- a milestone for the company -- and it is arguably the preferred messaging platform for doing business.
However, following WhatsApp’s founders’ exit a few years after the acquisition, the distrust for Facebook was extended to WhatsApp. Facebook gave users more reasons to worry when it integrated Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp into the same system in 2019.
While users’ reactions were spontaneous with some deciding to ditch the platform for Telegram or Signal, it remains to be seen what impact their move will have on WhatsApp’s market dominance.
But will the millions of people using WhatsApp Business prioritise their privacy over running their businesses on a free platform?
The Hedgehog’s Dilemma
Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher, famous for his theory on philosophical pessimism, told the story of an array of hedgehogs that had to keep each other warm on a cold winter day. When they huddled together for warmth, they hurt each other with their spikes but staying apart exposed them to severe cold.
Observant and desperate hedgehogs that they were, realisation hit quickly: to get warmth and avoid the spikes, maintain a distance that gives room for both.
In many of his works, Schopenhauer pictures the outcomes of human choices, depicting that neither promises a favourable end; one has to choose the lesser evil.
In other words, damned if you do and damned if you don't.
With WhatsApp making more private business engagements -- devoid of the scrutiny associated with Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram -- possible, how likely is it that users will leave the platform?
Would a sex toy vendor, for instance, who attests to completing 80% of his sales on WhatsApp because of the privacy it affords leave to avoid his data being mined for targeted ads?
A Techpoint Africa Twitter poll revealed that most people who use WhatsApp for business don't necessarily care about privacy as long as the platform serves its purpose.
— Techpoint Africa (@Techpointdotng) January 11, 2021
This lends credence to the claim that people own social media accounts to reach and engage many users.
Strangely, 40 of the 210 respondents for whom privacy is important are confident that they can build a new clientele on a different platform if those on WhatsApp don’t move with them.
But what is the endpoint?
In this article, we established that data privacy is a myth given how users become the product once the service or platform is free. Many of the services to which people subscribe are in the business of gathering their data which is later sold or exploited for targeted ads.
Sadly, nobody can be held responsible for what happens to our data. Well, that's until the next Cambridge Analytica occurs.
If users are uncertain about the security of their data on other channels, how is their fear of WhatsApp’s new policy justified?
UPDATE [January 17 at 07:24 a.m. WAT]: WhatsApp has extended the deadline from February 8 to May 15, 2021. The extension is in reaction to public outcry due to privacy fears. According to an official release, the time will allow users to review the updated policy and clear misinformation about what information WhatsApp has access to and can share.