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EXCLUSIVE: Users ditching WhatsApp shows Indians care about privacy, says Signal's Brian Acton

In an exclusive interview with India Today Tech, Signal's Brian Acton talks about platform's rise in the last few days, Indian users' reaction to WhatsApp's updated policy and plans for future.

twitter-logoManas Tiwari | January 18, 2021 | Updated 18:46 IST
Brian Acton
Acton said that it is great to see Indian users taking such a strong stand in favor of data privacy.

Highlights

  • Signal's Brian Acton talks exclusively to India Today Tech.
  • Signal to come up with India-specific features.
  • Signal to focus on becoming self-sustaining.

Data privacy is of the utmost importance to users and this is why more of them will be switching to Signal from WhatsApp, believes Brian Acton, Executive Chairman of Signal Foundation. The platform has seen a massive surge in number of users over the past couple of weeks with WhatsApp another platform co-founded by Acton announced its updated policy. In an exclusive interview with India Today Tech, Acton said that it is great to see Indian users taking such a strong stand in favour of data privacy. In the interview, he also talks about how Signal is ramping up infrastructure to handle user load better as well as the new features Signal app is working on.

Founded in 2018 as a non-profit organisation, Signal Foundation had received an initial funding of $50 million from Brian Acton, who earlier co-founded WhatsApp and parted ways with it after it was sold to Facebook. Acton says that Signal will focus on providing features that are needed by users instead of borrowing them from WhatsApp or any other platform.

Here are the edited excerpts of the interview with Brian Acton, Executive Chairman of Signal Foundation:

1. Signal has become a buzzword in the last one week. Is it possible for you to some figures into it? Like how many users Signal has now, what sort of growth it has seen in the last two weeks, and where Indian users feature in it?

A: It's so encouraging to see such burgeoning support from all corners of India. Signal is topping the charts on the iOS App store in over 70 countries and the Android App Store in over 50 countries. Earlier today, we crossed 50 million downloads on Android - India has dominated this number for us.

India is a country that has always been ahead of the curve at adopting the best technology, and it's exciting to see it happening again. To see India make such a strong stand, in favor of data-privacy and a new more privacy oriented messenger, speaks volumes. We are now continuing to scale infrastructure and are all hands on deck, so as to handle this incredible growth.

India is such a large aspect of the internet, and what India wants is what the internet wants. This growth proves that what India wants is digital privacy.

2. For the last decade, WhatsApp hasn't been challenged by any other messaging app. But, finally we have Signal and both the platforms are now being compared. How do you look at this rise?

A: I think Signal has been carving a niche of its own, especially since users feel we are a safe app to be on. At Signal, we don't collect any user data. People in India and across the world can see that and resonate with Signal's vision. The kind of transition we have seen in such a short time span is testament to that - and we are committed to keep working harder, to keep the momentum going, and to keep protecting everyone on Signal.

3. What do you think are the key features where Signal gets a lead over WhatsApp?

A:Being the #1 and the most popular app in India, means that the country has chosen that privacy matters. So our key differentiator, when compared to other messenger apps, is that we want you to own your own data. There are no ads, no trackers, and no analytics.

Signal uses state of the art end to end encryption so that it cannot read your messages, see your photos, listen to your calls, know who you are talking to, or even see your profile photo. If an exchange is intercepted, by a hacker or a government agency, the interceptor sees a nonsensical snarl of letters and numbers. Signal was founded to fulfill people's basic expectations that they won't be tracked by private companies or any one else for that matter.

4. Do you think that the two platforms can co-exist or will the users eventually end up choosing one?

A: When there are multiple platforms in one ecosystem, consumers are the ones who most benefit, as it only leads to innovation. I think it gives people an option, based on what is more important for them and if they are getting what they want out of the app. I think privacy is something people value greatly and as more and more people learn about Signal and what we stand for, they will continue to choose Signal.

5. WhatsApp became a hit because of the some of the convenience and the add-on features. Do you plan to borrow any of those features?

A: For now, Signal's engineers are working hard to ship the features people are requesting. Rather than borrowing any features, we would love to work on what our users expect out of the app. For us, India has a unique position globally and we are all committed to listening more, so that we live up to the high standards that people in India have come to expect. Currently we are about to launch wallpapers, which we saw was the most requested feature just a few days ago.

We also believe in localization and are calibrated for 10 Indian languages so far, namely Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu. We are working on many more.

You can also witness some uncommon features, such as messages that disappear after a set period of time; reacting to messages with any emoji; and the note to self feature.

6. While Signal has come to the spotlight, there are users who are yet to understand why they should be switching to the app? How do you plan to reach out to them?

A: We plan to increase our communication and outreach in a number of ways. We are also so fortunate to have so many leaders from all over the world that also advocate for switching over to Signal. At its core though, the most important thing anyone can do is to continue to have those conversations around keeping their messages and their information private.

7. Signal foundation is registered as a non-profit organisation. As the number of users grow and there is an increased demand, how do you plan to scale up we are sure the cost of maintaining an app like Signal is going to be huge and what is the revenue model we are looking at?

A: When a company is for profit, their motivations strive towards gaining more profit.Signal is an independent nonprofit, and our motivation is different, our mission is to provide the best tools for communicating privately with your friends, family and colleagues. We follow a revenue model of donations and contributions which fuel the cause of data privacy, and we aim to continue the same. No ads. No trackers.

Ultimately, our goal is to make the Signal Foundation financially self-sustaining.

8. What are your plans for the Indian market? Should we expect any India-specific features in future?

A: Two features, wallpapers and animated stickers, were developed within the first week of seeing them become our most requested features from India. One of the most exciting aspects about being established in India is that the community is so rich and diverse, we get very important and critical feedback about the app. We expect to continue to improve the app and release features that the Indian people request.

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