Whatsapp in pursuit of monopoly, and the alternative

For almost a decade Facebook has aggressively set out to acquire a monopoly in the field of social media communications. Popular communications platforms, such as Instagram and Whatsapp, which rivalled Facebook’s own services, were acquired (in 2012 and 2014, respectively), to consolidate the market and ultimately to profit from a captive audience locked behind “walled gardens” and unable to communicate between platforms.

This is a standard tactic for almost all existing competitors, whether Whatsapp, Telegram, iMessage, or others. A user of Whatsapp can only communicate with other users of Whatsapp. This is even an issue for the non-profit Signal messenger, although admittedly we can more readily rely on it for privacy and security. Signal openly publish their source code for public inspection and auditing—unlike the various profit-seeking alternatives, which proclaim that they honour privacy while neither proving it nor permitting us to prove it ourselves through inspection.

Various companies have been clamouring to dominate the market, forgoing immediate profits to build dominant market share, locking out any co-operation, transparency, or interoperability. This is not a feature unique to instant-messaging applications: in fact it is a standard feature of capitalist production. The pattern has happened before, with railway operators owning and controlling separate tracks and attempting to maintain monopolies on routes to try to gain the upper hand and force out all competitors.

Obviously this was no benefit to the traveller of the time having to deal with separate companies for separate routes with separate tickets. Ultimately the trains were nationalised to overcome this mess and inefficiency.

Why is it considered normal to maintain private, inefficient standards in a field where history shows us the obvious technological advances that come from co-operation and standardisation? People expect to be able to telephone between different operators, replace a bolt in a machine when it breaks, or to send and receive email to any address. None of this standardisation, co-operation or interoperability is of any benefit to a capitalist if they stand the chance of developing a monopoly. They will fight against it every step of the way, for the sake of profit. Capitalist governments are only too happy to let it all play out again in a different field if there’s a dividend for investors.

The only group pursuing an interoperable standard appearing in the space is the British-registered CIC Matrix.org, essentially a modern standard for encrypted instant communications, something to herd the capitalists into standardisation and co-operation. They offer the same transparency as Signal in publishing their source code for public inspection and auditing, with the additional advantage of allowing users to operate their own server while permitting communication to other servers, similar to email. Unfortunately, the capitalists have much more financial clout and advertising power than this “community interest company,” so Matrix is unknown to most people who use instant-messaging applications.

A service as vital as instant messaging should not be left to capitalists, who only want to gain dominant market share so as to profit from selling our data or our attention; neither should it be left to small non-profits like Signal or Matrix putting an ideal first, only to be crushed by the weight and inefficiency of markets. The state should be leading research to provide for the needs of the people, building a publicly owned and transparent communications standard, giving users the security and privacy they assume they already have but in reality don’t.

The efforts of Signal and Matrix can only be welcomed. We know from the history of communications that we can’t assume security from private companies. We must assume that bad actors have their hands in the pockets of Whatsapp, Telegram etc. thanks to their lack of transparency. We know from examples such as Crypto AG that the state security services of major capitalist countries take an interest in subverting encrypted platforms for communication, including for spying on other countries. We shouldn’t be hoping for capitalists to act in our best interests against their own profits.

It is revealing that the French state has replaced the use of Whatsapp and Telegram throughout the government with their own system, based on Matrix, as well as Germany using the same technology within the areas of health, education, and the army. Any claims of care for privacy and security from Whatsapp and Telegram are little more than hollow attempts to brand their products differently so as to appeal to a new “privacy-conscious” target market. There is no need to trust them or hope they will act in our best interests against their own profits.

The alternatives of Matrix and Signal allow us to inspect the code and audit the security and privacy, as well as to host our own services, as is the case with Matrix. Users of instant-messaging services must be encouraged to abandon the likes of Whatsapp and Telegram in favour of Signal and Matrix. Moving forward, these technologies can lay the basis for a co-operative, transparent international standard.

Further information

• To quickly get started with Matrix using their servers: https://element.io/

• For more information on Matrix, including how to set up your own server: https://matrix.org/

• To quickly get started with Signal using their servers: https://signal.org