These controversies come at a time when its parent company Facebook, which also owns Instagram and Messenger, has been under scrutiny across the world over privacy of user data, and also agreed to pay a $5-billion fine to US regulators earlier this week. But even as it tackles these challenges, WhatsApp is bullish on prospects in India as it revealed that it has 400 million monthly active users here out of a global base of 1.5 billion.
In his first visit to India, WhatsApp's global head Will Cathcart has been busy meeting regulators like the RBI besides ministry officials in Delhi. A former Google exec, Cathcart - who took over WhatsApp in March - has been part of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's inner circle.
According to him, Zuckerberg has been "very public about taking Facebook in the direction of WhatsApp" with planned integration of all the applications owned by the company. And India is the most critical market for WhatsApp, he tells TOI in an exclusive interview. Edited excerpts:
You have meetings lined up in Delhi with govt officials and RBI. What's the takeaway from these talks, especially on encryption, fake news and data localisation?
I am having meetings to introduce myself and talk about how much we view India as kind of the future of WhatsApp. We've been talking about what we have been doing with small businesses.
We have been proactively working over the last year to make changes to the product, like change the way forwarding works (limiting to five in one go), and people are forwarding 25% less. A lot of work is on automatically detecting cases where people are abusing the system and creating a lot of accounts. We have done a lot of education and partnerships. There is room to do a lot... we want this to be a product for private communication.
When do you see WhatsApp payments running full-scale operations here? Are you 100% compliant with data localisation?
Yes (100% compliance). We are excited about the opportunity for payments to really help the businesses and people that are interacting with it. It could be transformational. We are eager to expand it soon.
On data localisation, we have done tremendous work to comply with requirements and make sure we do this in a way that builds on top of the system India has set up with UPI and the bank partners that we are working with.
With WhatsApp Business, you seem to have a lot of focus on startups. How do you want to scale this up?
Our business app has been doing well with over 1 million businesses using it in India. Many more businesses are kind of using the consumer product, who are yet to upgrade to the business app. A big part of this trip is to meet and see thrancy of startups and entrepreneurs in India.
In terms of monetisation, will payments be the main play for WhatsApp?
We have premium WhatsApp API for larger businesses, which is one opportunity. Our philosophy is that we would build an amazing product that really resonates with consumers and really helps businesses achieve the kind of economic goals - then we think it will be interesting business opportunities that come out of that. For example, the status in WhatsApp is a fantastic product that people use a lot in India.
Solutions like limiting forwards have come due to India-specific challenges.
Are there more such solutions to tackle fake news?
For almost everything we do, increasingly we are looking at how people are using the product in India and using that to find things to build, and then we will do them globally. But really, if you look at a lot of our work around business, payments, product changes we have made - these are all things starting in India.
Despite WhatsApp's stand on end-to-end encryption, the government here is keen to know the source of messages...
Encryption means to us that if you send a message to a close friend, we don't know what it was. I know there's been some discussion on is there a way to know later on, like, come back to us - we show you this message and can you say where this came from? There's no way to do that (traceability) which doesn't involve us building a system where we keep track of messages people are sending to each other.
Do we really want to be keeping track of the messages everyone in India is sending to each other? We think that's inconsistent with the expectations people have for the product and the privacy they want.