Meta is trying to sell WhatsApp as an alternative to iMessage in the US. To do this, it is putting a lot of emphasis on privacy.
Mark Zuckerberg picked on Apple last week about how it could run an ecosystem for VR apps, but it looks like he’s moved on. On Monday, he posted a picture of an ad for WhatsApp on Instagram with a comment about how it’s safer than iMessage. Will Cathcart, who is in charge of WhatsApp, also sent out a series of tweets that talked about many of the same points.
The ad, which is shown at New York City’s Pennsylvania Station, is pretty simple. It makes fun of the green bubble/blue bubble dichotomy and tells people to use WhatsApp instead so they can message privately with end-to-end encryption. But Zuckerberg is more forthright in his post, calling WhatsApp “far more private and secure than iMessage, with end-to-end encryption that works on both iPhones and Android, including group chats.” He also highlights some features that WhatsApp has that iMessage does not, such as disappearing chats and encrypted backups.
Meta isn’t the only company to complain about Apple’s iMessage. Google has been trying to get Apple to add RCS, a messaging system that will replace SMS, to its Messages app. So far, it doesn’t look like Apple has any plans to do this. Instead, CEO Tim Cook tells users that if they want to talk to someone, they should just buy them an iPhone. It’s always possible, though, that it could change its mind if WhatsApp becomes a serious rival in the US.
Meta is making a big push with its privacy ad campaign. Vispi Bhopti, a spokesperson, told The Verge that it “will be shown on broadcast TV, digital video, outdoor, and social across the United States,” and that billboards will go up in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The company made it clear earlier this year that it wants to grow WhatsApp’s user base in the US. While it has 2 billion users worldwide (as almost all of our international readers point out in the comments of any article about how important iMessage is), it’s not the default messaging service in the US. In theory, it doesn’t seem like a bad idea to compare WhatsApp to something that people already know.
Meta has used privacy and security to market WhatsApp before. Earlier this year, it posted an ad that compared sending SMS messages to using a mail carrier who opens your letters and packages. The fact that iMessage falls back to SMS and can’t be used to send secure messages to Android phones is a fair criticism of Apple’s advertising for the iPhone, which focuses on privacy. You can also use the same Messages app to send both secure and insecure messages, which Signal recently said it would stop letting you do because it was confusing.
Zuckerberg is also right that iMessage doesn’t have disappearing messages or end-to-end encrypted backups. However, with iOS 16, you can take back messages up to two minutes after you send them, as long as the person you’re talking to has the latest software. As privacy experts have warned, this last point means that law enforcement agencies could technically get access to your iMessage history if they have a subpoena or warrant, as long as you or the person you were messaging with has Messages in iCloud turned on.
Perception is very important in advertising, and Meta doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to privacy. There are several comments under Zuckerberg’s post and the Doubt Delivered video that ask why anyone would trust WhatsApp: “That seems to be what WhatsApp would do.” “It’s owned by Facebook lolol,” one user said about the ad about mail carriers opening your mail. In response to the Penn Station ad, another user told Zuckerberg, “I’m happy as long as all of my information is shared with your advertisers.”
From a technical point of view, WhatsApp seems good for privacy, but Meta has a huge PR battle ahead of it, especially since it’s going up against the company that says “what happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone.” People’s ideas about Meta aren’t exactly in line with its business model, which is to keep your data for itself and sell the ability to target your users with ads. This is shown by the “sharing data with advertisers” comment.