WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton takes over as interim CEO of Signal: 5 reasons why this is significant

Brian Acton (Image: Reuters)

Brian Acton (Image: Reuters)

Messaging app Signal’s founder and Chief Executive Officer Moxie Marlinspike will step down and WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton will take over as the interim CEO, Marlinspike said in a blog post on January 10.

“It’s a new year, and I’ve decided it’s a good time to replace myself as the CEO of Signal,” he said. Marlinspike, who will remain on Signal’s board, said he was scouting candidates to take over as the permanent CEO.

Acton, who is the executive chairman of the Signal Foundation that runs the messaging platform, founded WhatsApp in 2009 which was bought by Meta Platforms, then Facebook Inc, in 2014. Three years later, Acton left due to differences over the use of customer data and targeted advertising, according to Signal’s website.

A Stanford alumnus, Acton co-founded WhatsApp with Ukrainian immigrant Jan Koum in 2009. The duo worked at Yahoo before starting WhatsApp.

In February 2018, Acton along with Marlinspike started the non-profit Signal Foundation, which oversees the app, by providing initial funding of $ 50 million.

Acton has positioned Signal as the messaging app for those who value privacy. He has told Moneycontrol that the platform is committed to protecting free expression and enabling secure global communication.

So, why is Acton’s appointment as interim Signal CEO important?

1 The Signal Foundation backs open-source tech for secure communication

Signal is an open-source app and backs the same technology for secure communication. Open source means that the source code is freely available to use, modify, and redistribute, which, in turn, means full disclosure of app codes to users.

An end-to-end encrypted messaging platform, Signal, has been endorsed by people including Twitter Inc co-founder Jack Dorsey and whistleblower and privacy advocate Edward Snowden.

2 As WhatsApp co-founder, Acton has a big presence in the world of encrypted messaging

Acton is an advocate for privacy and end-to-end encryption in messaging apps.

What is end-to-end encryption? A Google blog explains it as a security method that ensures that no parties except the sender and receiver can read messages that travel between their phones. This includes text messages and media files. Today, WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram use end-to-end encryption technology.

3 Acton has been a supporter of the #DeleteFacebook movement during the Cambridge Analytica Scandal

Acton’s original tweet (#DeleteFacebook) came at a time when he’d been away from the social network for over a year in the wake of a conflict with Mark Zuckerberg over WhatsApp’s monetisation.

Later, at the Wired’s 25th anniversary summit, Acton told a crowd that people must make their own decisions on whether to stay or leave Facebook. “If you want to be on Facebook, and you want to have ads thrust in front of you, go to town,” he said.

His comments coincided with Facebook facing pressure over national security.

4 It will be interesting to watch how Acton positions Signal as a rival to WhatsApp 

When Facebook-owned WhatsApp announced changes to its privacy policy on January 6, 2021, Signal was the biggest gainer.

Downloads of the app surged as people around the world, including India, looked for alternatives. Signal topped WhatsApp in terms of the number of downloads in the days following the policy-change announcement.

Privacy was not a fad and for people who valued it, Signal represented a viable alternative, Acton told Moneycontrol in an interview in 2021.

At the heart of the claim that Signal is a viable alternative, Acton said, was the belief that people valued privacy enough to sustain it, and that could drive an alternative to ad-based business models. The messenger is free to use and runs on grants and donations.

5 What’s in the future? 

Acton and Marlinspike started Signal Foundation in 2018 as a non-profit, with Acton himself putting in $ 50 million for the app. Marlinspike called his “transition out” an important step to expand on Signal’s success. The focus will also be on whether Signal will embrace crypto and encryption with greater vigour under a new CEO.

Acton had told Moneycontrol said Signal is “committed to the mission of developing open-source privacy technology that protects free expression and enables secure global communication”.

He said Signal was exclusively supported by grants and donations and was not tied to any major tech companies, and could never be acquired by one either.

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