The Telegram messaging service is becoming more and more popular, especially in Asia. Photo: Reuters/ Dado Ruvic

For the past month, popular messaging service WhatsApp, with more than 2 billion users around the world, has found itself at the center of a growing controversy after the revision of its privacy policy sparked widespread alarm.

Posts went viral suggesting that accepting the policy would allow Mark Zuckerberg, whose tech titan Facebook bought WhatsApp in 2014, to “see all your chats.” Galvanized by prominent figures including Elon Musk and Edward Snowden, millions of WhatsApp users, particularly in Asia, have deserted the platform for alternative messaging services such as Telegram.

The snowballing outrage both overplays the specific risks associated with the privacy-policy change and underemphasizes the extent to which WhatsApp’s business model has always relied on collecting personal data.

As WhatsApp has fruitlessly tried to explain amid the furore, the policy change only applies to communications with businesses, not chats with family or friends – though this could still involve a substantial amount of data.

The underlying fears underpinning the exodus from WhatsApp, however, are more than justified. In fact, as one expert noted, “people are losing their heads over something that has always been the case” – WhatsApp has been sharing most users’ metadata with Facebook since 2016.

Nor is this surprising. Facebook and its subsidiaries are among the forerunners of what social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff has dubbed “surveillance capitalism,” a business model centered on “all the behavioral data they can glean from our every move” and using it to predict future behavior.

Turning a profit off of this data requires ever-expanding access to it, an “extraction imperative” that drives companies like WhatsApp to increase their harvesting of users’ information continually.

Many users, meanwhile, are taking matters into their own hands and seeking out more privacy-friendly alternatives. Telegram in particular has reaped the benefits of WhatsApp’s disgrace, and might soon emerge as Asia’s most popular communications platform.

As the backlash against WhatsApp gathered steam, Telegram recently announced that it had surpassed 500 million monthly active users for the first time, with 25 million new users joining in 72 hours alone, the largest contingent – 38% of them – in Asia.

This level of activity pushed Telegram’s valuation to US$30 billion, sparking the interest of a Western fund that reportedly wanted to snap up 10% of the company. It turned down the offer, however.

How did this cloud-based messaging app, developed by Russian-born entrepreneurs Nikolai and Pavel Durov, become the beneficiary of “the largest digital migration in human history”? One reason is the app’s independent streak, present since its inception.

Pavel Durov’s first company was VKontakte, a Facebook-type social network he launched in 2006, yet was forced out after a dramatic shareholder conflict that almost scuttled Telegram.

In 2013, Durov ran into problems when Russia’s UCP fund amassed a 48% stake in the company, and took Durov to court arguing that Telegram had been developed using VKontakte resources and therefore was UCP’s property. Some suspected this to be an attempt by the Kremlin to increase pressure over the Russian internet, while UCP claimed that it had “purely financial” motivations.

However, Alisher Usmanov’s Mail.ru Group, one of Russia’s major Internet companies, along with his partner Ivan Tavrin, took on the white-knight role and acquired Durov’s shares in VKontakte at the most critical moment of the confrontation.

This played a substantial role in thwarting UCP’s attack on Telegram, allowing it to emerge independent and unscathed from the ensuing court battles. Mail.ru Group, which already held 52% of VKontakte, bought the remaining 48% of the social network in a $1.47 billion all-cash transaction, brought the legal proceedings against Durov to an end, and allowed the entrepreneur to focus on developing Telegram unimpeded.

Shortly afterward, Durov left Russia, but his personal experience of dealing with repression left a lasting mark on Telegram. Not only has the app become known as the perfect tool for people who want to foment change and avoid scrutiny by the authorities, but its very business model has put data privacy at its core, in sharp contrast to WhatsApp and the other mainstays of surveillance capitalism.

This commitment has manifested itself both in terms of Telegram’s features and its response to governmental interference.

On a technical level, the platform offers a “Secret Chat” function encrypted with Telegram’s proprietary MTProto Protocol. Thus chats are not cloud-based and can only be accessed on the device used.

Encryption keys, which are split into parts so that they are never kept in the same place for extra security, are also exchanged when a secret chat is initiated. At the same time, messages and attached files can be deleted at any time, or a “self-destruct” timer mode could be activated.

Unsurprisingly, these privacy features have attracted the attention of anti-government protesters around the world. Most recently, in November, Thai authorities allegedly ordered Internet providers to block Telegram after a student-led movement against the prime minister used the app to organize protests on short notice.

Telegram’s unique approach to privacy, however, makes it very difficult to block, as Moscow has already learned. In 2018, the Russian government ordered the app shuttered when Durov refused to hand over customers’ encryption keys.

The state communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, and state security agency FSB tried all sorts of methods to stop the app’s usage in Russia, including testing new systems designed to allow more precise blocking of individual services – to no avail. Last year, Russian authorities officially gave up and lifted their ban.

This dogmatic commitment to protecting users’ privacy has unsurprisingly attracted users’ attention in the wake of the WhatsApp controversy, and for good reason. Just as WhatsApp’s creeping collection of personal data is not a temporary bug, but rather a feature of its business model, Telegram has earned users’ trust by pledging to remain ad-free and to put privacy first.

The WhatsApp uproar has unveiled how strong the appetite is for an app that puts data privacy first.

Dmitriy Frolovskiy

Dmitriy Frolovskiy is a political analyst and consultant on policy and strategy in the Middle East and Central Asia, and has written about Russia’s foreign policy. His writings have been featured in Foreign Policy, The Hill, the Carnegie Moscow Center blog, Al Jazeera and others.

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