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Signal’s Brian Acton: It’s not up to technologists to be the ones to render judgment

"I don’t like being a nanny company."
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WhatsApp has been a big talking point in for a while now, – especially in India – and the mood is not good. Not only is the Facebook-owned messaging app one of the world’s most used – its biggest market is precisely India, where it has over 400 million users.

Late last year, India introduced plans to force social media networks, WhatsApp included, to monitor and intercept messages exchanged on their platforms; things only got worse when a controversial law, described as being aimed against Muslim immigrants, entered into force, causing violence and prompting the authorities to accuse WhatsApp as a medium for sharing fake news and stoking panic.

It’s no wonder, then, that against this backdrop, some are focusing on WhatsApp in a story referencing an interview with Steven Levy, the author of “Facebook – the Inside Look.”

Although WhatsApp, and one of its co-founders, Brian Acton, don’t feature in the long-ranging interview – and only briefly in the book itself – the article highlights Acton’s words, while its verdict of the WhatsApp is harsh: it is said to be “at the forefront of fake news and hate speech being spread in countries like India.”

That’s a pretty serious charge, and seemingly in order to stress the bad core of the social network from the get-go. i.e. the philosophy of its founders, Acton is quoted as saying that it’s not the job of technology makers to “render judgment.”

From the interview:

How seriously did WhatsApp’s founders take the finding that their product is being used to promote hate speech, lynch mobs, and other societal harms?

Apparently not at all. “There is no morality attached to technology, it’s people that attach morality to technology,” Brian Acton tells Levy. “It’s not up to technologists to be the ones to render judgment. I don’t like being a nanny company. Insofar as people use a product in India or Myanmar or anywhere for hate crimes or terrorism or anything else, let’s stop looking at the technology and start asking questions about the people.”

In other words, the argument is that at the end of the day people, not apps, form lynch mobs and organize protests.

In recent times, much of this is being framed in consideration of government attempts to regulate social networks against “misuse” – that is to say, introduce new rules mentioned earlier that would force these companies to censor users, snoop on them by tracing them, and by monitoring and decrypting private messages.

WhatsApp has so far refused to allow such sweeping and invasive access to the content shared by its users citing the end-to-end encryption on the platform and the inability to maintain this feature and accept the authorities’ demands.

As for Acton, in 2018 he went on to launch the Signal Foundation – to support the, a secure, free and open-source messaging app positioned as a competitor to Telegram – Signal.

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