Acton’s $1b moral stand
WhatsApp founder a ‘sell-out’
ON MARCH 21 this year, Brian Acton posted a tweet that quickly went viral and drew a lot of media attention.
“It is time. #deletefacebook” was all it said.
At the time, Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal was just erupting, putting the spotlight on how the social media company uses and distributes users’ personal information. But the reason Mr Acton’s tweet was so notable among a sea of others sporting the same hashtag was the fact that months earlier he had quit Facebook, leaving an eye-watering sum of money on the table.
He is the co-founder of messaging app WhatsApp – which Facebook bought for $30 billion in a stunning deal in 2014.
Mr Acton hasn’t tweeted again since that four-word message telling users to abandon his former employer, nor has he spoken publicly very much about his final days under the reign of Facebook’s 34year-old CEO Mark Zuckerberg – until now.
In a piece by Forbes, Mr Acton refers to himself as “a sellout” despite taking what journalist Parmy Olson described as “perhaps the most expensive moral stand in history”.
After he became fed up by Facebook’s desire to find a way to squeeze personal ads into WhatsApp, he walked away from the company a year before his final tranche of stock grants vested – a common payment method to reward workers with the ability to cash in shares if they stick around.
But he knew what he was doing. The day he left he took a screenshot of the stock price on his way out the door. The decision to leave cost him about $1.17 billion.
WhatsApp was founded by Brian Acton and Jan Koum and provides a messaging service with end-to-end encryption and, perhaps most importantly, was strictly ad-free. Essentially, those two principles are antithetical to how Facebook operates.
The social media giant is one of the world’s biggest digital advertisers and sucks up all the information about users it can because its sales pitch to advertisers is how much it knows about them.
The WhatsApp founders, on the other hand, were very much pro-privacy guys.
According to Mr Acton, after the sale to Facebook it didn’t take long before he and his WhatsApp team came under pressure from Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg to monetise the messaging app.
He pushed back as Facebook questioned the encryption he’d helped build and laid the groundwork to introduce targeted ads and facilitate commercial messaging on the platform. But it was a fight he felt he couldn’t win.
“At the end of the day, I sold my company,” he told Forbes . “I sold my users’ privacy to a larger benefit. I made a choice and a compromise. And I live with that every day.”
The reality of a start-up selling itself to a huge public company that has shareholders and an imperative for revenue growth meant WhatsApp’s unique messaging service was destined to be swallowed up in the name of surveillance capitalism.
“They just represent a set of business practices, principles and ethics, and policies that I don’t necessarily agree with,” Mr Acton said of the executive team running Facebook.
But he made the decision to sell to Facebook knowing full well the company’s business model and despite leaving some money on the table, it was a deal that means he is now worth nearly $5 billion.
BIG DECISION: Brian Acton, co-founder of WhatsApp, says he is a sell-out despite walking away from a $1 billion Facebook payout.