In an exclusive interview, WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton opens up about walking away from more than $850 million dollars at Facebook, and why with all the money in the world he’s betting on privacy. In this candid interview, Brian says he hopes his work at privacy non-profit Signal Foundation will help usher in a new era of free expression. Acton speaks openly about how users should navigate privacy in a tech era where trust has been tarnished, and responds to calls to break up big tech. The notoriously private founder also speaks about his upbringing – from “shoveling shit” far from the Silicon Valley promised land, Acton explains how growing up doing the “non sexy’ jobs led him to success, and why time is his most valued asset. First Contact explores the complicated dynamics of money and happiness, privacy and protection, and the pursuit of free expression in a world where our data has become currency.
Laurie Segall: You walked out the door and left $850 million on the table. Right?
Brian Acton: A little bit more. [long pause] She’s pausing for effect.
Laurie Segall: I’m trying to think of my head like that must have been hard.
Brian Acton: How much money do you need?
Brian Acton: Money and wealth does not by immortality. For me, time is actually more of an essence. How can I contribute to this world while I’m still on it?
Laurie Segall: It was almost two years ago our next guest rejected me. It’s part of my job as a journalist. I call up people and i ask them to speak to me. Often times at these really sensitive moments in their lives and when i called Brian Acton, who’s the cofounder of Whatsapp, he had just walked away from $850 million at Facebook. Sure, he was still a billionaire. The company sold to Facebook for $22 billion in 2014. So let’s be honest- he did pretty well. But to me, and i think well to a lot of other people it felt like he was taking a stand. A stand against what? In my mind it felt like he had something to say. Which he opted not ot say to me or really anyone else at the time. He rarely does interviews but that’s not he only reason i found him interesting. I’ve always been interested in people who don’t exactly fit the mold. And Brian feels like an anti Silicon Valley founder. At a time where tech has been glamorized he’s incredibly understated. He’s shy, doesn’t love the spotlight and when you dig into his past you’re going to find out that he did a lot of unsexy work in past jobs, the kind of stuff that he refers to as
Brian Acton: I call it shoveling shit
Laurie Segall: Years later he’s finally ready to talk now with all the money and all the time he’s placing his bets on privacy. A pursuit of encryption and free expression in a world where i think we’ve all got questions over what’s happening to our data. Tech is now under fire for breeching our trust. Lawmakers are calling to break up big tech and Facebook is at the center of the privacy debate. So that leaves Brian Acton in a fascinating position to finally speak out. He’s the cofounder of Whatsapp a messaging platform he built on the promise of encryption and then came that dramatic exit from Facebook. So what made him leave? And should big tech be broken up? Also how did his pursuit of privacy lead him to his next and what he says will be his final act. And how does he feel about all of this?
I’m Laurie Segall and this is First Contact.
Laurie Segall: I’m trying to think of when our first contact was.
Brian Acton: Peet’s Coffee?
Laurie Segall: Peet’s Coffee, I feel like I’ve stalked you for a while, right?
Brian Acton: Yup in, I want to say San Mateo, somewhere mid-peninsula. Cause you drove down and I drove up.
Laurie Segall: I know and I remember there was this really weird moment, cause my taxi cab driver got lost and you just like showed up out of nowhere and were like, here you are. and that was my first contact with you. But I had been, how did I contact, I think I contacted you over like Facebook or something.
Brian Acton: You called me.
Laurie Segall: I cold called you?
Brian Acton: Yeah.
Laurie Segall: And I think it was always sensitive because you know, people pay attention, I think, when you speak and people are kind of looking at you…
Brian Acton: Maybe sometimes too much but yeah.
Laurie Segall: Yeah but because of who you are, right? For better, for worse, they do pay attention to it.
Laurie Segall: why’d you decide to say yes?
Brian Acton: As you know, I’ve been involved in this Signal, messenger product and Signal Foundation now for about 18 months. And so we have more of our feet under us, there’s more to talk about. There’s been more distance from my time at WhatsApp so I think it’s easier for me to talk about things.
Laurie Segall: Very much feels like your next act. You could do anything with who you are right now and this is really what you want to do.
Brian Acton: Yes, and I’m not the kind of guy that’s going to go sit on a beach or anything.I really don’t still sit still very well. I’m much better as a guy who rolls up his sleeve and just wants to work.
Laurie Segall: I don’t know you very well, but I get that that sense from our conversations we’ve had because you were, I mean I don’t, I feel like it’s kind of cheesy to say in front of someone, like well you’re worth billions. But you are worth billions, isn’t that correct to say?
Brian Acton: At least that’s what Forbes says.
Laurie Segall: and you could do whatever you want. But that’s not going to be your life’s work, you’re not going to end there.
Brian Acton: No and it’s, it’s very much in my DNA. You know, my grandfather worked into his 80s. My mom is you know still very much working and I have the desire to work. So it’s, it gives us purpose I suppose.
Laurie Segall: You grew up in central Florida?
Brian Acton: North and central Florida, yeah. 10 years in Florida.
Laurie Segall: but it’s just crazy to be sitting across from like someone who’s, I mean, a bit of a titan of Silicon Valley and to think like this was not your DNA at all. Like your DNA was so far from this.
Brian Acton: The confluence was probably math. Definitely early, you know, sort of early into the whole math thing, really enjoyed it. And then, you know, also science, that type of stuff. So, I mean, definitely had the academic aptitude. So I was your, you know, stereotypical, you know, competitive overachiever in some ways.
Laurie Segall: I saw that your mom started a freight business, your grandmother owned a golf course
Laurie Segall: You had a lot of female empowerment in your life early on. what did that do for you?
Brian Acton: Well, I mean, certainly my mom and my grandmother taught me a lot about sort of the value of hard work and taking risks, right. I think the most important lesson there was you could always land on your feet. And so you know it was easy for my grandmother, I shouldn’t say it was easy because building a golf course is actually not easy. But you know she could always sort of land on her feet and work if something ever failed for her.
Brian Acton: And the same thing with my mom, my mom is a brilliant and gifted person as well. And so she, she would always land on her feet.
Laurie Segall: What do you mean by that though
Brian Acton: Very, very early in her career. I mean she was a very young mother and also single at the time. So she was a single mother and so, you know, for her it was quite a struggle to, you know, make ends meet, that type of thing. She wasn’t college educated
Brian Acton: And so she had, you know at the beginning, you know, when she was 22 years old, she had me. She was 18 when she had my older brother. So, she was at work very early, and you know at the ground floor she didn’t have any advantages bestowed upon her so she had to sort of work her way up.
Brian Acton: And she fell into the freight business because in the 80s, freight became this big thing.And so that’s how she sort of fell into selling freight. I mean, at one point in her life she sold vacuum cleaners door to door.
Laurie Segall: Wow, did you ever help her?
Brian Acton: No, no. I was too young.
Laurie Seall: What were you doing?
Brian Acton: There were times in which I would stuff envelopes for her in some of her entrepreneurial ventures and that type of stuff. But more like back officey type stuff I would help her with then. I’d never go door to door with her or anything like that. Never go with her on like a sales call.
Laurie Segall: I grew up in the south and my parents got divorced when I was younger and I remember it was harder for my mom. And I always felt a little bit like I was the only Jewish girl at a very Christian conservative school. And so I always felt like a little bit of an outsider, which is why, why I was so attracted to the idea of entrepreneurs and people who didn’t fit in the lines. But watching, I think, how my family came about, I think very much shaped the type of work I would do. Maybe even to the point where why I’m sitting here talking to you. Is there anything specific you could pull that you think really shaped like your obsession with building these things?
Brian Acton: you know, my mom ultimately she believed in me. And she supported me in so many ways. And you know, in sixth grade, one of my teachers recommended I skip a grade. And she was like, no I don’t want to do that, I’d rather he get a better education at a private school. So she drove me every morning, for an hour, to a private school for grade 7. We subsequently moved and I went back to public school but, I mean, that was kind of a sign of her dedication and I think that same sort of dedication passed on to me.
Brian Acton: You know, I’ve always been very dedicated to the work I do. To the level that you sort of take it to heart, right, you’re passionate about it. You makes your choices based on what you’re passionate about.
Laurie Segall: did you think you were going to do something big? let’s go back to like Brian in Florida, who’s stuffing envelopes for his mom, did you think you were like capable of it,
Brian Acton: You know, I was certainly an outlier in my school and an outlier among, you know, my schoolmates you could say I was maybe more of a late bloomer. Even being a 35 year old entrepreneur, which is fairly atypical by Silicon Valley standards. It’s more like, it’s the 20 something, 3, 4, years out of college. I more followed more traditional paths and really became much more self aware and aware of my potential at a later age.
Laurie Segall: You’re right, your story isn’t very necessarily Silicon Valley legend of, oh he dropped out of Stanford and went and started his own company. I mean actually, you went to Stanford, you transferred to Stanford, And then you went and you worked at Yahoo?
Laurie Segall: one of the early employees there,
Brian Acton: Yup.
Brian Acton: I was ended up hired as the sixth engineer and employee number 44.
Laurie Segall: how long were you there, like seven years or something?
Brian Acton: 11 and a half years so 96.
Laurie Segall: wow in tech years that’s a really lon time like what made you stay and Yahoo wasn’t sexy forever right? Like it was sexy at first when you started but not as much so.
Brian Acton: You know i was dedicated. I became director of engineering and hten several years later i became VP of engineering. I, continued to build my reputation at Yahoo, And I gained that extra experience of like managing budgets and, I mean not that it’s the funnest thing in the world… i mean
Laurie Segall: well it sounds like i mean you’re like the guy who does the stuff that’s not that sexy, but that’s important, right?
Brian Acton: I call it shoveling shit. But yeah.
Laurie Segall: What do you mean shoveling shit?
Brian Acton: Well that maybe that aspect I get from my dad. Just because he did sort of scuff when it came to cleaning up dog poop.
Laurie Segall: What do you mean?
Brian Acton: We had dogs we had lots of dogs growing up and my brother and I had to do all the clean up.
Laurie Segall: you just had to clean up dog shit? That’s basically the training that built out this entrepreneur.
Brian Acton: I think well, I think it gives you another dimension, there’s risk taking which i can really say came from my mom, and then there’s sort of the dedication to hard work and I think that was both my parents. But I think there was also a sort of no nonsense component to my dad that was like you know, i don’t care if it’s like baking a cake or picking up poop you’ve gotta do the needful. There’s an Indian phrase it’s, you do the the needful, you do that which is necessary to be done and that’s what you focus on.
Brian Acton: and yeah i mean when i was at WhatsApp especially, I did the needful, I did HR, I did legal work, I did all kinds of random stuff, paid bills, paid taxes. Cause it needed to be done, you know. We eventually hired people to do it, but you do the needful.
Laurie Segall: You’re the person that people need when things get chaotic. Just when you need to do the basic.
Brian Acton: Yeah it’s not sexy in some cases but it’s what’s necessary, it’s what needs to be done.
Laurie Segall: And I mean to be honest it’s a little bit of the anti Silicon Valley narrative. The more you sell yourself and sell what you’re doing the more people kind of pay attention.
Brian Acton: Yeah I mean there’s certainly an element of culti-personality, building your personal brand alongside your corporate brand and a lot of times they’re conjoined. I mean you can’t separate one from the other. I was never really into that aspect of it because I didn’t see that that was where the real value comes from, you know, for me, it was wanting to build something that was useful for the world. You know you ask yourself what can i do that can have a more permanent and longstanding um contribution right? And that’s focusing on utility to me. It’s not focusing on fad. You have fad vs. utility. And you know famiously there’s this piece of paper no ads no games no gimmicks that you can read but that to me embodied what was ephemeral about technology.
Brian Acton: If you invest in all this gimmick-ery, fine, you get a pop, you get you know a bump in monthly actives, or you get some sort of bump but it’s not sustained.
Brian Acton: It’s not me, it’s not what I ever want to build in product.
Brian Acton: The day that Jan founded Whatsapp this is February 24th, 2009, The first verison of Whatsapp was this online status service. Right it was like oh, I’m in a meeting, don’t call me. It wasn’t, there was no messaging in it. And Jan didn’t pivot into messaging until over the summer and then released the 2.0 product in I think September of 2009.
Brian Acton: But then he was like hey this, messaging thing is taking off. I was like okay, I can get behind this, this makes sense. You know, let’s take on the telephone company.
Brian Acton: Us being, the little guy, us being you know, let’s really show the world that you don’t have to pay 50 cents to send one picture. Which is what people were paying via MMS and SMS rates. And so What I did is I said, okay, I’ll work for free and I’ll invest in this company and I became sort of the junior partner in all of htis and the junior co-founder. And you know he and i sort of whent at it as partners through and through. From the beginning til the end.
Laurie Segall: is there a moment that you ever thought like, wow, this is gonna be really valuable.
Brian Acton: There was some seminal moments when we… for example, we passed the population of Twitter. You know the funny part is like social network movie they’re like “oo one million users woo hoo” well we had a million users like in the first three months of using the product.
Laurie Segall: I mean i’m sure there was always interst in like buying you guys.And so eventually Facebook came calling, right?
Brian Acton: Yeah, I mean several years later and that was a- a lengthy courtship between Jan and Mark.
Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brian Acton: Um, I wasn’t really part of that. But you know, it sort of culminated in this wonderful Valentines day dinner that they had and they fell in love and
Laurie Segall: (laughs).
Brian Acton: got engaged … no. Um, but it was sort of over that Valentine’s day in 2014 that, you know, they hammered out some of the financial details. And all that and-
Laurie Segall: What was going through your head at the time?.
Brian Acton: Um, well, the dollar amounts became very large. And so, you know, you start to ask yourself, how could I ever say no to this? Right? And so you’re- you’re just, you’re going through all the rational decision making of, okay, well I have shareholders, I have employees with stock options, you know, this would have a material impact on them. How could i ever say no to this and not have them revolt on me? Right. Andrew Mason went through this with Groupon, right?
Laurie Segall: Yeah.
Brian Acton: Groupon turned down a bunch of money from Google and- and subsequently 18 months later he had to go public because that was the only way he could prove to his investors and everyone else that he made the quote on quote, right choice.
Laurie Segall: Right.
Brian Acton: Um, I didn’t wanna be in the position of having to do the same thing because I knew that WhatsApp was not ready to go public and that we weren’t in the right stage of our life cycle to even think about going public. If we were to become public was probably be, we would start, maybe two years later
Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brian Acton: … we were just too… we were… maybe that was where being too profitable worked out they worked out in our favor, but we were just too focused on building a great product and addressing our user base. I mean, that’s all we were ever focused on.
Laurie Segall: I remember, um, being on TV at the time and- and when- Instaram was gonna sell for a $1 billion I remember saying like a $1 billion, like, can you believe this? Can you comprehend this? Right, And everyone was like, Oh my God, $1 billion. And then (laughs) you guys came along and sold for, it was 19 billion, but ended up being like 22 billion. And it was just like this extraordinary moment.i guess for me personally as someone who had covered startups for so long, it was just this like-woah- like I cannot believe how big this was. So it felt like that to me and I wasn’t on- I wasn’t on the inside you know so how did you feel that day?
Brian Acton: Um, well that morning i called my mom and said, you need to watch the news after market closes. And that was all I could tell her because otherwise it’s insider information or whatever, and so you have to be, you know, careful of that and so i was like just watch the news after and we’ll- we’ll talk afterwards. And so, um, you know that was a whirlwind 72, 96 hours.
Laurie Segall: What did your mom say when she saw the news-
Brian Acton: … Oh, she was like, ‘wow, Wow, wow, wow.’ I mean like it was nonstop. Wow, she was like… she couldn’t believe it she was in disbelief.
Laurie Segall: That was like the whole conversation was just her saying wow.
Brian Acton: Yeah. yeah.
Laurie Segall: Do you remember the first thing you did when you signed the papers?
Brian Acton: Um, I think I shook hands with Jan. that’s all. That was a sweet moment for us.
Laurie Segall: I mean Obviously it’s gonna bring incredible things, but it’s it’s gonna change thins, it’s gonna change everything. Did you grapple with that-
Brian Acton: No.
Laurie Segall: … or did that take a little bit of time, are you still grappling with that?
Brian Acton: Yes.
Laurie Segall: In what capacity?
Brian Acton: in every capacity.
Laurie Segall: Like what?
Brian Acton: Um, it… you- you have this enormous responsibility to figure out what to do with your wealth, right? Uh, and for me it’s, you know, what can I do that’s good in the world, you know, and how can I do good in the world. Um, it’s also an onslaught of interest. Um, you know, I get a lot of spam. I get… I shouldn’t call it spam. I get a lot of solicitation, right? And so i Have to protect myself more. I have to actually put up more barrieers to me than I- than I’m used to. And- and you know, I’ve- I’ve grown c. more custom to it. I maybe have a slightly thicker, but I’m not the best guy at saying no.
Laurie Segall: by the way, we’re not complaining about, uh, having all the money I get it and that it really does something to you mentally to like have that extra amount of wealth that comes with power and responsibility.
Brian Acton: Yeah.it lets your your values come out, right? And so I took… I take to heart all the responsibilities of it. Um, I- I don’t necessarily, I think power is a whole nother equation, but, um, that with wealth you can do good things in the world. You can, you know, um, that’s- that’s where I can spend my time. I spend my time on-
Brian Acton: … you know i do spend my time on building technology in a nonprofit capacity. Right So, I also try not to let it chane my life too much, um, because I- I don’t want it to distort my reality and I don’t wanna become one of those persons that lives in such a distorted world relative to how everyone else lives. I live in a fairly normal place in- in a fairly normal town, my kids go to public school, right? Um, even still my kids are afforded slightly better things and slightly better and i worry about that sometimes. Am I setting the right uh, precedent for them? You know, is that the right thing for them? how they grow up? Is my son gonna have to shovel shit the same way I did or clean toilets or whatever. I mean I had to do all that. Right. So… and um, or is he just gonna have a person who comes and cleans the house every day? You know, and he won’t learn how to do that himself.
Brian Acton: to me it’s more you- you- you do in life, you reap what you sow know, so to speak. You don’t just get something for free.
We’re going to take a break to hear from our sponsors but when we come back Brian talks abotu why he decided to walk away from facbeook and what it was like to leave behind 850 million dollars. On the way out.
Laurie Segall: you ended up leaving Facebook, I guess in- in a way that and maybe this is why you don’t talk all the time, in a way that was kind of public.
Laurie Segall: why the decision to go?
Brian Acton: I started to see the sort of read tea leaves, you know, see the writing on the wall, you know, that type of thing that it was gonna become a more difficult environment for me that Facebook was wanting to assert more control over outcomes, and wanted certain outcomes that I wasn’t really in support of. So I mean, it boils down to get out of the way and let them do their thing Let’s- let’s be adults and recognize that I sold my company, andI reaped enormous benefits and let me get out of the way so that they can get on with their business, and that’s exactly what I did.
Laurie Segall: but you talked earlier about how you’re a utility guy and it was very much them trying to monetize it in ways that you guys didn’t agree with, is that correct to say?
Brian Acton: Um, certainly. you know, we were going back and forth a lot into like, how do we monetize whatsapp… what’s the right strategy? Should we put ads into the product. those types questions? And it was like, WhatsApp, it was like we would just say, move on with our lives. The way it works machine is you say no, and then the guy in charge says well let’s go do a bunch of research on that. Right? And so then you spin up you know some sort of experiments or research or whatever, and at the end of the day you might see some, interesting information or artifacts from that research and then they’ll be like well let’s do some more research
Brian Acton: And then you spin out for 12 months doing quot on quote research and you’re just like, Jesus Christ, this is a waste of my fucking time. Right? I said no 12 fucking months ago-
Brian Acton: … let it just be no and can’t we move on and try something else? And that’s not an indictment of that company it’s a lot of publicly traded large corporations are like this. It’s like they want to make sure they’re doing it right. And so you know when it came to the end for me i felt pushed a little bit and so it was time. It was time for me to leave.
Laurie Segall: I remember when you guys sold it was very much Instaram Whatsapp. All- all these companies that were bought by Facebook were gonna be kept separate.
Laurie Segall: I think it sounds like kind of what you’re saying is what changed was that promise is the integration of some of that. And with that came a lot of- of a vision that you just didn’t see- for the company
Brian Acton: Yeah. And you know, it’s- it’s- it’s tricky to say, oh, well there were promises and broken promises or it was just simply that people change their mind. Right? And- and I don’t- I don’t wanna throw anyone under the bus. I think, you know, this is, a dynamic world we live in. You know, what- what was sort of the way I thought about it in 2014 is exactly what you described. We would be a separate. We would stay in our Mountain View office, we would continue, we would build our own business and we would largely be independent. Um, and then in 2015, uh, you know, things got chipped away, a little bit, 2016 things got chipped away. And then by 2017, we’re moving into Menlo park office and, um, we’re having to go to all these corporate meetings about these corporate initiatives that we just don’t even support. And they wanted-
Laurie Segall: Like what- what was the thing that you didn’t support?
Brian Acton: Um, well there- there was- there was events in Facebook’s history. It was like, oh, well there’s this bad thing happening. Like, oh, some form of bullying. Right? And- and so they would come to us and like, what are you doing about this? And we’re like, uh, well, we can’t look at the traffic, so we’re doing nothing.
Laurie Segall: because the idea is that you guys were building encrypt- encryption, right? Like WhatsApp was encrypted and- and that was a very big deal to you.
Laurie Segall: And it seems like it’s a very big deal to Mark now, but- but back then, like, you know, there’s been a lot of that- that debate-
Brian Acton: Yes.
Laurie Segall: … of like, should this be encrypted, should it not? So you are kinda in there fighting and saying, no, no, these- these communications need to be secure and encrypted.
Brian Acton: Well, it- it wasn’t so much of a fight. It was- it was education because the… a lot of the sort of… because i don’t want to call it legacy, but a lot of the outstanding Facebook employees didn’t understand what it meant to live in an encrypted world. Right? They didn’t understand that you didn’t have access to content because in their own world they did. And they’re like, oh, well we can police this all day long. And it’s like, no, you- you can’t because it’s encrypted. We can’t look at it ourselves. Right? Um, and so yeah, I mean me… for me in 2013, WhatsApp, I worked with a wonderful intern and we did a prototype of doing encryption in WhatsApp 2o… end of 2013 is actually when I met Moxie. and he sort of like smacked me a little bit, well… intellectually smacked me down-
Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brian Acton: … because, you know, my prototype was extraordinarily naive, right? Whereas what Moxie was building was sort of state of the art and sophisticated and so it was very self evident. There was like, okay, let’s work with Moxie to bring good strong encryption to WhatsApp in WhatsApp messages and that’s what Moxie helped us do.
Laurie Segall: And for those folks who don’t know who Moxie is, I know Moxie ’cause I met him at-
Brian Acton: Yeah.
Laurie Segall: … a hacker conference right in Vegas have met, but he’s like this infamous hacker for good, if you will. Right? Um, who um, I almost like wanna describe what he looks like ’cause he’s so epic looking like he’s very tall and has like blonde dreadlocks and like-
Brian Acton: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Laurie Segall: … and he’s very mysterious and he has so much respect in the security world he’s just one of the best in the business. Right?
Brian Acton: Very much so. Yeah.
Brian Acton: and through this wonderful Silicon Valley. I got introduced to him, I met him, Jan met him, we decided that we would move forward and at that time is when Facebook decided to buy us. And so we, Jann and I both went to Mark and we’re like, Mark, we’re still building encryption. You… and- and Mark- Mark was fairly diplomatic. He’s like, yeah, go ahead. You guys do what you wanna do. Right? Um, again to the sort of, oh, you’re independent. Mark was okay with it.
Brian Acton: And so we continued on and it took us almost two years to change the engine while the airplane was in the air. I mean, it’s- it’s not an easy feat. Um, and I don’t think it’s uh, slam dunk decision that every company wants to make. but that’s the power of what Jan and I could do is we could say, yeah, we’re gonna do this. Let’s go do it. And we would say no to a half a dozen other things.
Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brian Acton: Right? And you know, that eroded over time. And it was- it was time for me to leave.
Laurie Segall: do you remember your last conversation with Mark?
Brian Acton: Yeah.
Laurie Segall: How’d it go?
Brian Acton: It was just a very sort of matter of fact conversation there was a trigger in my contract that talked about monetization initiatives. Um, and I did invoke that trigger, um, and not really knowing what outcome I really wanted.
Brian Acton: but more to just make a point that these monetization initiatives were things that I didn’t believe in and that I, I wanted to make my point. So I made my point and I left. I didn’t pursue any further sort of litigation on the matter or anything.
Laurie Segall: There is this idea that you wanted it to be known, that this is not, that the company built, you didn’t believe it should be monetized and this way they shouldn’t be ads in it.
Brian Acton: Right, right.
Laurie Segall: Was he angry at you?
Brian Acton: … no, no, it was, it was a fairly, the one time he was angry with me was the day that I triggered it.
Brian Acton: because I think he felt threatened or he felt like I had, afronted him in some way and, I actually do remember I said to him, “I said, look, this is about ads. I don’t want to put ads in the product.” And that, you know, that was my, my position on the matter.
Laurie Segall: And what did he say?
Brian Acton: He was more like, okay, that’s your opinion. Right. So.
Brian Acton: And again, you know, Mark… Mark is a fairly level headed person. He’s not, he wasn’t like screaming at me or anything. Um, and he’s a fairly, you know, analytical person. So I, you know, I don’t know if I ever had an impact on him. I don’t know if I ever had any, I don’t know if I moved that needle, I’d like to think that now that Facebook’s taking a stronger position on encryption, that maybe I helped move that needle.
Laurie Segall: Alright.
Brian Acton: Um, but I don’t know.
Laurie Segall: the ideas that there are golden handcuffs and you stay long enough, your stock vest and you get the amount that you know, that you kind of signed on for. Um, so you could’ve stayed a year, but instead right if it’s about another year, but instead you- you walked out the door and- and left $850 million on the table. Right?
Brian Acton: A little bit more. Yeah. She’s pausing for effect.
Laurie Segall: I’m trying to think in my head it must have been hard.
Brian Acton: But how much money do you need.
Brian Acton: money and wealth does not buy imortality, it… I mean I’m 47, right? I’m not your 20 somethings startup founder, you know, and so for me, time is actually more of an essence. how long, how much, how can I contribute to this world while I’m still on it? A year is a lot of time…Yes I could have sucked it up. but it also is not my DNA to phone it in. And you know, I could have done a mix of trying to half phone it in and kind of limp along and kind of half do my job. And that’s just not me.
Brian Acton: I- It’s not- not who I am. I mean, I wanna… if I’m there, I wanna be there. If I’m not, then I’m not. And so it was more a binary decision of like, And that was- that was that.
Laurie Segall: How did you feel walking out of there?
Brian Acton: Um, numb. A little numb. Yeah. I mean it’s… for me, you know, it was the end of, a really wonderful time and you know, it was eight years almost to the day that I- I was part of WhatsApp and I saw so much. Met, you know, some great people and- and saw so much growth and everything else. But I also knew that I was moving on to something bigger, better, more important. And that’s what I wanted to focus on.
Laurie Segall: what were the months after like for you emotionally?
Brian Acton: it was fairly more of the numb I think. I was trying to… you’re- you’re actually asking me something I haven’t really thought about. It was more just sort of internalizing and grokking and really understanding, sort of what I had done, um, in the- in the impact of it. I- I mean, I’m a fairly sort of even keeled person.
Brian Acton: I had… I didn’t have any sort of freak out moments or anything like that, but it was like, you know, occasionally you second guess yourself, it’s like, did I really make the right choice? should I have stayed longer? Um, you know, am I doing the right thing going forward? That, you know, those are- those are some of the things where you, you sort of, you know, just sort of mentally debate yourself.
Brian Acton: Um, but overall, you know, I, I sort of went, got through that over a sort of a six month window when, you know, t
Laurie Segall: Right. Um, and you never looked back at the, the money?
Brian Acton: No, no.
Laurie Segall: Yeah.
Brian Acton: I don’t. To this day.
Brian Acton: You can get caught up in playing the Forbes game. Um, I don’t really like that game, so it’s, it’s, it’s not something for me.
Laurie Segall: What do you mean?
Brian Acton: Well, Forbes keeps score.
Laurie Segall: (laughs).
Brian Acton: Yeah. Who’s, who’s, who’s in the first place. Is it Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates. I mean, it’s a game, right? I mean, there’s, there’s no point in either one of them having the wealth levels that they have. Right. No, no disrespect to them. I mean, they’ve earned that, that wealth, but it fucks with your psyche, right? It’s like, Oh, I’m gonna go play to the war, the Forbes game. I want to see if I can get into the top 10 list instead of the top 100 list or whatever. And it’s like, you drive yourself nuts.
Laurie Segall: was there ever a party that thought maybe even with everything happening around privacy and looking at the trouble Facebook has gotten into, maybe if you had stayed, you would have had an impact within?
Brian Acton: No, no.
Laurie Segall: Why not?
Brian Acton: I was never a member of the inner circle there. I was never, I was a lone voice in a, in a voice. I was, I was very much uh, counter voice in that organization.
Brian Acton: except I, Jan was with me. So it, but it was, he and I who were often the Maverick’s not the right word, but we were often the people that were sort of counter to what, what was being spoken about in the room.
Brian Acton: We’d be like, no, we don’t want to do this.
Laurie Segall: Well you need naysayers in any tech company, right?
Brian Acton: I think it’s useful to have naysayers for sure. I don’t know if I had the best user interface for it, ’cause-
Laurie Segall: What do you mean by that?
Brian Acton: Well, I mean I’m fairly terse and abrupt and-
Laurie Segall: (laughs).
Brian Acton: … everything else. And so, you know, that’s off putting sometimes for people. It’s like when you’re a naysayer and, and what they want is more collaboration.
Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brian Acton: Um, I don’t know. But yeah, I was not the naysayer that they needed.
We’re going to take a quick break to hear from our sponsors but when we come back Brian opens up about his next big act. Privacy and the pursuit of free expression.
Laurie Segall: You met Moxie when he was helping build out encryption for WhatsApp. And he was building Signal, which is this encrypted messaging app, right? That, that lets you communicate privately.
Laurie Segall: so You leave whatsapp and this is such a huge thing so you could have kind of done whatever you wanted, but you put a lot of your time and effort into building out a private communication tool.
Brian Acton: yes, absolutely. I, I wanted to continue, and I, I think what happened in my tenure at WhatsApp is that sort of the crystallization around the mission started to happen and I started to see more alignment with, with what Signal was and was becoming, and so I saw it as an opportunity to further the mission and put, you know, make it my life’s work I suppose.
Laurie Segall: and you put 50, I want to say 50 million into it.
Brian Acton: Yup.
Laurie Segall: . and, and so when you put that in, it was an encrypted app.
Brian Acton: So at the top level you have the foundation, the foundation I set up as an umbrella foundation., and I wanted to do that with the hope and the expectation of having other products and services. The flagship product today is Signal messenger. It’s very similar to WhatsApp. It’s very similar to Telegram. You sign up with your username, with your telephone number., once you get into the system you can message people, you know, if they have signal installed as well or you can, there’s an SMS bridge, but long and short is it’s a telephone number messaging system, highly encrypted though, encrypted by default., so it has sort of a lot stronger position than say some other products because there’s actually more of it encrypted than any other product. And maybe we branch out into other areas where we could also benefit from increased privacy and increased security.
Laurie Segall: Where do you see that going?
Brian Acton: I’d love to see stronger mail position email.
Brian Acton: I’d love to see stronger payment positions. I’d love to see stronger positions around storage, around identity. You know, I mean, Google and Facebook have this login system and it’s all sort of kind of in the clear data that you’re giving to them. I mean, it shouldn’t necessarily be that way.
Laurie Segall: But it feels like the world is catching up in some capacity to understanding the data problem and the fact that the communications might not be secure. what is your philosophy now on when it comes to privacy?
Brian Acton: Signal especially takes the strongest position, which is we either don’t have the information, or the information we do have is encrypted in a way we can’t look at it. And that’s, in my opinion, the most, the strongest and most protective position. to me, privacy is protection, right? We are protecting our users, protecting it even from ourselves. Right?
Brian Acton: And it’s a, it’s a rare stance, and it creates some substantial technical hurdles to actually achieve that. so to a degree, there’s also a little bit of an R and D element to what we’re doing. We’re working on problems that haven’t been solved or haven’t been solved and, um, made widespread available.
Laurie Segall: There;s also this debate over encryption that i think his hitting silicon valley in a very real way Right now, which is government law enforcement, uh, is saying, you know, full encryption, we should be able to create a backdoor in some capacity. People like me as a journalist, I can talk to people securely, but also,
Laurie Segall: terrorists, pedophiles can use this. So what your stance is just everything should be private.
Brian Acton: Well, I think that, what ends up happening is you have a group of people in the world, the bad people, and no matter what you build, they’re gonna find a safe way to do their bad thing, right. In other words, um, let’s say we’re forced to build encryption with a backdoor, hypothetically, they, these bad people will just migrate to a technology that doesn’t have a backdoor. You know the devices enable this and you know it’s not necessarily the communication channel that’s to blame.
Brian Acton: the world wants us to talk about encrypted communication as one sliver of this pie. But this pie is so large if you do that, you’re going to impact a lot of good people and you’re going to in a bad way. And so you’re actually taking away their privacy in, in so doing, you’re creating more surveillance in the world and you’re not actually making a dent with the bad people. The bad people are gonna still continue to do their bad things.
Laurie Segall: given everything that’s happened with the tech companies and what we’re looking at, do you think we have to re envision privacy and, and our idea of privacy or lack thereof?
Brian Acton: I hope that we actually envisioned privacy, not re envision it, we endorse it more. I think if anything, the, the companies of the world need to consider more of your information is private. And to be more careful about how they handle it and to um, you know, protect it better. like a lot of these companies track, you, track your activity, track, track your behavior, track what you do. I mean, they don’t always need to do that. You know, they do it in, in supportive advertising, right? They do it in support of, showing you the, the right thing at the right time so that you engage with it. Right. But you know, maybe there’s better business models, right?
Laurie Segall: If it’s not advertising, what is it subscription?
Brian Acton: That, that can be a model. I think, you know, um, you know, at signal we’ve, we’ve been debating back and forth, uh, you know, should we do A or B, you know, donations for us is really, you know, where we think about it because like Wikipedia is donation driven, right? And, and you know, why isn’t why you shouldn’t signal also be-
Brian Acton: … donation driven. You know, why shouldn’t be more of the internet being nonprofit, right? If it’s really useful, people will pay for it for sure.
Laurie Segall: What do you worry about the most? I mean, you sit at the heart of all of this.
Brian Acton: I do worry that, the United States will take a shortsighted position on this and, um, pass some, some dumb laws that will actually put us at a disadvantage globally because the United States can only pass laws that apply to the United States, right? And so if, if for example, they say, “okay, you have to have a back door.” What does signal do? Well, we leave, we leave the country, right? We, we reincorporate in Switzerland or somewhere else and we continue business. But the people in the United States lose out, right?.
Laurie Segall: now that the government is paying attention and there’s pressure on Silicon Valley. What do you think should happen?
Brian Acton: the tech companies of the world in my opinion, should be doubling down on privacy and encryption. They should be doing more of it.
Laurie Segall: Do you think they are?
Brian Acton: I think it remains to be seen. I think that, you know, in, in the Facebook case, I think they have an execution problem, which is how do you get three disparate systems to all talk to each other and maintain the same standard of encryption. I think in the Google case they have, um, a different problem. Like, like take Google mail for example. It’s like they, they have this search feature, right? You, if you encrypt everything, you lose the search feature. And that, that speaks to sort of like the technical hurdles of providin, you know, providing strong encryption. Like it comes at a cost-
Laurie Segall: Right.
Brian Acton: … for them to, to re architect their systems so that it’s, um, still searchable and yet encrypted in a way that Google can’t look at it, means it, means a substantial change for them. And you know, unless you’ve got sort of a really strong leader who’s gonna say, I don’t care, let’s do it. They’re gonna just continue business as usual with all your emails exposed to Google, you know, all your Google drive content exposed to Google, you know, all this stuff that’s in the quote unquote cloud is readable by Google. Enhanced readable by, you know, uh, government authorities.
Laurie Segall: There’s this narrative right now, especially playing out politically where all these tech companies are under fire. but do you think that tech companies have too much power and influence?
Brian Acton: that’s a loaded question, right? I think that they have their measure of power and influence. Um, as does any, uh, other form of media, to have too much as applies a judgment statement. I don’t, I don’t know if I’m really equipped to judge that.
Laurie Segall: I think there’s a larger question of like, are these companies monopolies? And I guess WhatsApp kind of set at the center of that. because WhatsApp sold to Facebook and you have someone like Senator Warren saying WhatsApp should be broken up from Facebook, that Facebook has too much power. Do you think WhatsApp should be taken away from Facebook?
Brian Acton: she’s, she’s narrowing it to sort of like the, the place of single, you know, communications and, and again, it goes back to sort of what is the equation here? I think one of them is, is there alternatives? And the answer is absolutely yes. There’s many alternatives. So how can you claim that a single company is a quote unquote monopoly when there’s five different alternatives? I could rattle off a name as alternatives to Facebook. It’s only a defacto monopoly because people choose to use Facebook or use WhatsApp or use whatever. It’s not a monopoly through any other form. They don’t have any strong hold over the American people, American people. You can switch apps any day of the week.
Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brian Acton: Right? You can go use signal, you can use, you know, WeChat if you’re, if you wanna, I mean really give away your privacy, but like, there’s other apps you can use. There’s, there’s nothing that’s, no one’s pointing a gun to your head and saying, you must use, WhatsApp or Facebook or whatever. I mean, there are choices.
Laurie Segall: So that would be your message to- to a lot of the politicians who are talking about these companies needing to be broken up, that there’s still alternatives?
Brian Acton: I- I would really wanna understand what the basis of breaking them up was. I mean, the one that we have, historically, is AT&T, right? And so AT&T, there was no choice. That was the whole reason they had to break up AT&T. You couldn’t get an alternate long-distance carrier. Like, there were all these problems with AT&T being the monopoly.
Laurie Segall: Right.
Brian Acton: Because you couldn’t get another phone company to come to your house and give you signal. Right? That’s not the case on the internet. Internet, the internet, you have virtually infinite choice.
Brian Acton: So, to break up, you’re essentially penalizing one company and breaking them up, and allowing all the other companies that you’re actually not even legally authorized to break up to continue on. So in some ways, it’s anti-competitive for American companies to try to break them up, right?
Brian Acton: You’re just allowing some other foreign company to actually take over some of the market share, because you’re artificially imposing some sort of break-up philosophy. And you- you don’t even have a good mechanism to sort of break it up under what terms.
Brian Acton: there are certainly things that I think that Facebook has been accused of doing on an unfair advantage basis. But that’d be another criteria to evaluate them. Or Google, for that matter. I mean, Google, also, is like, are they posing unfair advantage in some- some areas? That would be maybe a basis more so than like, oh, these shouldn’t be allowed to talk to each other.
Laurie Segall: Do you think Silicon Valley’s doing enough now, when it comes to the debate on privacy and security and our data?
Brian Acton: All I can speak to credibly is what- what we worked on, though. I’m not in the inside in as much as I- I know Facebook’s product map, road map.
Brian Acton: So, I- I have to sit on the sideline with you, and say, you know, where’s the proof in the pudding? when is Facebook gonna really roll out these strong privacy protections? A good litmus test would be if Facebook Messenger was encrypted by default. It’s not. It is not encrypted by default. And you could… and you could apply that to almost any chat application. Is it encrypted by default?
Brian Acton: And the only other one besides Signal is WhatsApp. Every conversation by default on WhatsApp is encrypted. Every conversation by default on Signal is encrypted. On the other products, you have to invoke it, you have to say, I want a private conversation. Right? You have to go off the record, so to speak.
Laurie Segall: we’ve spent our lives sharing our data on Facebook. We’ve put ourselves out there, we’ve been asked to and we have., so why do you tell people that this is… this is the future of communications? Like, we’ve spent, part one was open communications, and the open web, and now you even have Zuckerberg, everyone’s saying like, okay, private, private, private is the future. So, explain to folks why.
Brian Acton: Well, there’s, I mean, there’s one dimension which is the private part, and then there’s another dimension which is trust me, it’s private. I think where Signal really pushes it is the latter, not the former. I think everyone is sort of really starting to understand the value of the privacy. But we take it a step further in the sense that you shouldn’t have to trust us to know it’s private, right?
Brian Acton: And that’s the… that’s the stance that we take with- with Signal, We don’t wanna be some mega-corporation Fortune 500 company, oh, just trust us, we’ll do the right thing.
Brian Acton: You know, Target was a trusted company, and then they leaked all those Visa credit card numbers. Right? That- that shit happens. Right? Trust us, and we won’t make any mistakes. Like, those mistakes happen all the time.
Laurie Segall: But like, it certainly seems like this idea of like, just trust us, is- is over, or we shouldn’t anymore.
Brian Acton: No, we still trust so many companies.
Laurie Segall: But should we?
Brian Acton: I- I think that you… we as a people should be demanding more transparency. We should be asking where our data is, how is it stored, and getting more things talked about in the open.
Laurie Segall: So, how can people better ask their companies these questions when they can’t even… we can’t even really fully wrap our head around what’s happening?
Brian Acton: I think we’re all wrapping our heads around this and then we see some companies, you know, sort of do a better job at it. I certainly, when I was at Facebook and WhatsApp, um, saw the terms of service getting lawyered to death, right? And it was painful, right? I mean, Jan and I wanted the simplest terms of service we could make.
Laurie Segall: Which would be?
Brian Acton: Like, we’re not gonna put ads in the product. We’re, you know, we’re not gonna sell your data. We’re not gonna do this. Right?
Brian Acton: i was gonna say in defense of the lawyers So there are some real pramatic problems that sort of manifest in writing a terms of service, and conveying this in such a way that the user understands it.
Brian Acton: it’s- it’s complicated.
Brian Acton: It’s not, like, a slam dunk, oh, you know, let’s just regulate the shit out of this, and… because peeling the onion, right, you start to cry. You’re like, oh, crap, what about this case, what about this case, what about this case?
Brian Acton: and people wave their sort of magic wand, they’re like, oh, well, reg- regulation’s gonna solve this. And it’s like, regulation’s gonna make everyone cry?
Laurie Segall: What is… so what do you think is gonna solve… if you think regulation not breaking up Facebook, not breaking up the tech companies, not regulation, so what?
Brian Acton: we are, as a population, are evolving. I think we educate and teach people. You end up creating indirectly nonprofit watch dog groups that point out bad behavior.
Brian Acton: And then I think as consumers, we can vote with our dollars. We can choose the services that we trust, right? And the services that provide more transparency into that trust, right, and demand that.
Brian Acton: but it’s a slow needle move. And it takes a lot of user education. I mean, we as a population are just new to the internet in general, it’s only 20, 25 years old, right? I mean, it’s- it’s ungodly to think of how short a time that is.
Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Laurie Segall: Not many people have created a product that has impacted as many people as you.
Brian Acton: Over 1.5 billion monthly actives.
Brian Acton: At least as the public data says.
Laurie Segall: to create something that big, that impacts that many people, is pretty extraordinary. Um, in- in some capacity. Do you ever feel the pressure of, will I produce something that big again, does that ever get into your head?
Brian Acton: I don’t know. I hope with Signal, I can have even greater impact. That, um, and remember, we’re a nonprofit, mission-driven organization. So if all of the big tech companies decided to adopt the same philosophies of Signal, we would be successful and we could close shop, right? That’s- that’s sometimes how it works with nonprofits.
Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brian Acton: It’s like you… mission accomplished. But I think it’s- it’s many years out. And, you know, that’s why I can sort of devote my time and my energy, and my money, to this endeavor. I can… and- and seek to have an impact that even exceeds what I accomplished with WhatsApp.
Laurie Segall: it’s very personal to you.
Brian Acton: Well I think that goes back to you know the passion part of it. And Yeah. I mean, I am passionate about this mission, I’m passionate about this organization. And it’s my fundamental belief and i’ve always valued people in the equation. It’s not always about the code it’s about hte people that build this. And um you know that’s in my DNA building organizations.
Laurie Segall: i thouh Something you said before was really interesting where you said money doesn’t buy you happiness
Laurie Segall: You have all the money in the world, so, that’s an interesting statement to say that it doesn’t mean you’re happy.
Brian Acton: I don’t have all the time in the world.
Laurie Segall: What does that mean?
Brian Acton: Take it… take it as you hear it. I mean,on a given day there’s only 24hrs How many of those do I have to sleep just to stay healthy?… how many of those do I have to exercise to stay healthy? Right? Do I i do all of the things i need to do in that given day? No. Because I have other commitments right?
Brian Acton: So money doesn’t buy time, right? You can outsource things and people might say, oh, woe is me, Brian, you- you’ve got all the money int he world you can solve your problems but it doesn’t mean I can… I’m spending more time with my kids for example, that’s time that you have to invest, right?
Laurie Segall: what are you gonna leave behind? How do you wanna be known?
Brian Acton: Can I be known Anonymously?
Laurie Segall: why do you wanna be known anonymously?
Brian Acton: Um, because it’s- it’s… maybe I see a bigger picture, that it’s not about me, it’s about humanity right. I would… I would rather die knowing that I had a positive impact on humanity than to have my nbame attached to it… if that makes sense to you.
Brian Acton: That- that I could small impact on the world, and- and knowing that just myself and personally is all that matters.
The most interesting founders i’ve interviewed are manifestations of the company’s they create. They’re in the ethos of the platform or of the code they put out into the world. Brian Acton is no exception. I go back to when i ask brian how he wants to be known he says anonymously. When you’r eworth billions and your product has touched billions it feels almost counterintuitive to say you’d want to be left unknown. But maybe it makes sense. If you look at his next act where he’s spending his time and money post Whatsapp Brian’s mission for privacy, encryption, and a pursuit of free expression all under the umbrella of the signal foundation are exaclty that. If You could extract a theme from that work it would be allowing for anonymity and in a world where our data our lives and every move is documented, targeted, profiled, pursued, it’s an interesting nuanced thought. So i’ll leave you with it.
I’m Laurie Segall and this is First Contact.
For more about the guests you hear on first contact sign up for our newsletter, go to firstcontactpodcast.com to subscribe follow me I’m @lauriesegall on twitter and instagram and the show is @firstcontactpodcast.If you like the show I want to hear from you. Leave us a review on the apple podcast app or wherever you listen and don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss an episode.
First contact is a production of Dot Dot Dot Media executive produced by Laurie Segall and Derek Dodge. original theme music by Zander Singh.
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