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Who Is Facing Up to WhatsApp’s Hegemony?

Who Is Facing Up to WhatsApp’s Hegemony?

Thursday, 14 January, 2021 - 11:45
Salman Al-Dossary
Salman Al-Dossary is the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

Telegram’s Twitter jibes at instant messaging giant WhatsApp, in response to the latter’s imposition of new privacy-violating conditions on its users, were remarkably expressive. Telegram took the social network by storm after tweeting a GIF of the popular meme, the Coffin Dance (aka the dancing pallbearers), with a picture of WhatsApp’s controversial privacy update on the coffin. The update, which experts have described as a flagrant violation of privacy, has left many fearful of the implications for the security of users’ private messages once they are shared with WhatsApp’s mother company, Facebook.

WhatsApp’s step coincides with another war waged by the world’s major tech companies, with Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Google, and YouTube. They decided to launch a fierce battle against US President Donald Trump, suspending and removing his accounts and banning him for their platforms. Regardless of whether or not Trump deserved this after the incident at the Capitol and the accusations that he had indirectly called for an insurrection, the more important issue is that these companies were able to do this with the stroke of a pen, without needing a judicial verdict to justify their step. This pushed the German chancellor, who is by no means on friendly terms with Trump, to say that it is the prerogative of lawmakers- not private companies- to put constraints on freedom of expression. Here, any user of these applications is entitled to ask himself a simple question: If the tech giants could do this to the leader of the world’s major country, preventing him, overnight, from communicating with the 88 million people who followed, what could about me, a basic user? How will I be dealt with? Will his fears be taken seriously, or will they be disregarded?! We certainly know the answer.

Today, a dilemma faces all social media users. On the one hand, they have grown used to using these applications on a daily basis to communicate with their friends and family, and on the other, they are vulnerable to the violation of their privacy and the information gathered from this intrusion being used maliciously, without the capacity to influence the situation in any way whatsoever. They can neither do without these platforms nor continue to use them in light of their flagrant violations, which are akin to blackmail. Governments have been ignoring their responsibility in this regard for a long time, refraining from looking for alternatives to these applications, which could even pose a threat to national security with the billions of gigabytes of sensitive data they gather from users. Didn’t the United States ban US entities from conducting transactions with Bytedance Tencent, the Chinese companies that own Tik Tok and WeChat, respectively, describing both as “major threats?” Just a few days ago, the White House announced a ban on making financial transactions and transfers through eight Chinese applications, citing fears of this would allow for tracking and collecting precise information on federal employees of the United States government. The US claims the Chinese software applications could be used to access and collect massive amounts of information about users, including sensitive personal information and private data, which is indeed very possible, but what prevents the other applications we use from doing the same thing?!

In light of the technological advances taking the world by storm, we could say that governments were very late to launch their own social media sites and that they have allowed the major multinational tech companies to gain control and violate their citizens’ privacy. Of course, moving to similar applications, like Telegram or Signal, is an unideal and temporary solution.

These applications will inevitably take actions that parallel WhatsApp’s privacy-violating step. Governments, universities, research centers, and specialized companies have no choice but to develop new social media platforms instead of leaving the world vulnerable to the ramifications of having a few social media platforms control billions of people.

The corporations that own these applications have access to the most intricate of details about peoples’ lives; what they wear and drink, their personal relationships, and their behavior, not to mention the most dangerous issue at hand, the grave national security threat they pose. Despite this, governments are unable to take any steps due to the absence of suitable alternatives. Thus, without governments protecting their citizens by providing them with a plurality of social networking platforms that play the same role, we will continue to find ourselves at the mercy of tech giants. The situation will only worsen and become more dangerous as time goes on.

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