Ac­ton’s $1b moral stand

What­sApp founder a ‘sell-out’

The Western Star - - TRENDING -

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.

Photo: iS­tock

BIG DE­CI­SION: Brian Ac­ton, co-founder of What­sApp, says he is a sell-out de­spite walk­ing away from a $1 bil­lion Face­book pay­out.

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