If you live in the US, chances are you’ve at least heard of WhatsApp, the messaging app Meta bought in 2014.
But if you live in other parts of the world like India, the service is more than just an app to communicate with friends and family.
“WhatsApp in India is a way of life,” said Rajeev Khera, founder of food technology company Chakki Peesing, which operates outside of New Delhi.
Khera is one of the millions of Indians who run businesses primarily through WhatsApp. And it’s not just businesses: About 400 million people in India use WhatsApp to keep in touch with relatives abroad, send money, access critical medical information and more.
WhatsApp’s simple design has helped make it a hit internationally, especially in countries where most people don’t have an iPhone to use iMessage or affordable cell phone plans to send text messages. When Meta bought WhatsApp eight years ago for a record $19 billion in cash and stock, it was considered a risky gamble. Today, while not contributing much to Meta’s bottom line, WhatsApp is arguably the company’s most essential international product.
At the same time, WhatsApp struggled with some of the same misinformation issues that have plagued Facebook. But unlike Facebook, WhatsApp uses private, encrypted communications software that makes it harder for the company to moderate content. That problem is especially acute in India, where unsubstantiated rumors about the app have led to dire consequences. Recently, the Indian government has threatened to crack down on one of WhatsApp’s most core values: user privacy, with regulators demanding a way for authorities to access people’s messages when needed. Will Meta continue to keep WhatsApp messages private even as the pressure mounts?
“You have to think about what it means to offer a service where people communicate their most private thoughts, most private messages, and most private conversations with the people they care about most around the world,” says Will Cathcart, the current head of WhatsApp.
In our sixth episode of the new season of Land of the Giants, Vox Media Podcast Network’s award-winning narrative podcast series about the most influential technology companies of our time. This season, recode and The edge have teamed up in seven episodes to tell the story of Facebook’s journey to become Meta, featuring interviews with current and former executives.