WhatsApp’s move coincided with another battle led by major social media platforms companies such as Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Google and YouTube, against US President Donald Trump, after blocking his accounts and banning him from their platforms. Without entering into a debate about whether Trump deserves this or not, following accusations against him of indirectly inciting rebellion and the storming of the Capitol building, what we should focus on is that these decisions were made by the companies themselves, not a court order. This prompted German chancellor Angela Merkel, who has never seen eye-to-eye with Trump, to state that it is lawmakers - not private companies - who decide about restrictions on freedom of expression. And here anyone who uses these apps should ask himself a simple question: If these tech giants treated the president of the largest country in the world like this, and prevented him from communicating with his 88 million followers overnight, then what about the average user? How will his information be treated? Will his concerns be addressed, or will they be overlooked? I believe the answer is clear to all of us.
Today all social media users face a major dilemma; on the one hand, they are dependent on these apps for their daily business and communication with family and friends, and on the other hand they are vulnerable to privacy violation and powerless before the use of their data. They can’t live without these apps, nor can they continue using apps that leverage their privacy to the point of threatening to close their accounts if they do not agree to these terms. Governments have long shirked their regulatory role through their failure to search for alternatives to these apps that may even affect national security, by collecting billions of sensitive data elements about users. Hasn’t the US banned dealings with the Chinese company, BitDance, which owns TikTok, and Tencent, owner of the messaging app WeChat, describing the two applications as “major threats?” A few days ago, the White House decided to prohibit financial transactions and payments through eight Chinese apps, accusing them of having the ability to track and collect information on US federal employees. This move shows that Chinese apps can access and collect huge amounts of information about users, including sensitive personal information and private data, which is very likely, so what prevents the other apps that we use from doing the same thing?!
In light of the technological development sweeping the world, governments are long overdue in creating their own social media apps, thereby allowing major global tech companies to control them and invade the privacy of their citizens. Of course, moving to more secure apps such as Telegram or Signal is not an ideal solution as much as it is a temporary one. WhatsApp’s move towards privacy violation is an inevitable trend for other apps, and governments, universities, research centers and private companies should work to create better options, instead of leaving the world at the mercy of a handful of social media apps controlling billions of people. These apps now collect the most detailed information about users, from what they wear, to what they eat and drink, to their relationships and personal habits, and while collecting such data may seem harmless, it has a dark side which poses a threat to national security, yet users find their hands tied in the absence of suitable alternatives. Without governments protecting their citizens by providing multiple social media apps that play the same role, we will continue to find ourselves at the mercy and whim of tech companies, even more so than we are witnessing today.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al- Awsat.