WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton announced on Wednesday that he was investing $50 million into the newly formed Signal Foundation, an emerging non-profit created to support, accelerate, and broaden the mission of Signal, the popular encrypted voice calling and instant messaging app.
Acton had left WhatsApp and Facebook last year, and has been thinking about how to best focus his future time and energy on building non-profit technology for public good.
Open Whisper Systems, the company behind the end-to-end encryption app Signal, was founded by Moxie Marlinspike in 2013. Marlinspike noted in a company blogpost,
Long before we knew that it would be called Signal, we knew what we wanted it to be. Instead of teaching the rest of the world cryptography, we wanted to see if we could develop cryptography that worked for the rest of the world. At the time, the industry consensus was largely that encryption and cryptography would remain unusable, but we started Signal with the idea that private communication could be simple.
Recounting their journey, Marlinspike noted that over the last five years they had built a service used by millions, and software used by billions. He said that the stories of people discovering each other in moments where they found they could speak freely over Signal, of people falling in love over Signal, of people organising ambitious plans over Signal have encouraged them to keep going despite limitations.
He explained that over Signal's lifetime, there has only been an average of 2.3 full-time software developers, and the entire Signal team has never been more than seven people. With three client platforms to develop, a service to build and run, a growing list of integrations to assist with, and millions of users to support, that often left the team wanting. He said,
Even so, Signal has never taken VC funding or sought investment, because we felt that putting profit first would be incompatible with building a sustainable project that put users first. As a consequence, Signal has sometimes suffered from our lack of resources or capacity in the short term, but we’ve always felt those values would lead to the best possible experience in the long term.
So far, Signal had relied on the generosity of the Freedom Of The Press Foundation as its fiscal sponsor. But starting with $50 million in funding, Signal Foundation now aims to increase the size of its team, capacity, and long-term goals and values.
Acton noted that he had first met Marlinspike in 2013, when he was at WhatsApp and they were working on a joint effort to add end-to-end encryption to the app. He said,
I was blown away by his technical ability and admired his passion and absolute commitment to data protection and personal privacy.... Moxie (Marlinspike) and his team have built something very special in Signal Messenger and I am thrilled to join their effort to provide the most trusted communications experience on the planet.
Marlinespike will continue to serve as CEO of the newly created Signal Messenger nonprofit organisation, and Acton will serve as Executive Chairman of the Signal Foundation where he will take an active, daily role in operations and product development.
Acton noted that two of them share a belief that the best way to continue to ensure the universal availability of high-security and low-cost communications services like Signal is to do so through a foundation structure that is free of the inherent limitations of a for-profit company. Ultimately, their goal is to make the Signal Foundation financially self-sustaining.
Talking about the fundraise and Acton's role, MarlineSpike noted,
This means reduced uncertainty on the path to sustainability, and the strengthening of our long-term goals and values. Perhaps most significantly, the addition of Brian brings an incredibly talented engineer and visionary with decades of experience building successful products to our team.
Acton has over 20 years of experience, working for some of the largest technology companies in the world. He noted that they believe there is an opportunity to act in the public interest and make a meaningful contribution to society by building sustainable technology that respects users and does not rely on the commoditisation of personal data.
Acton said that as more and more of our lives happen online, data protection and privacy are critical.
This development comes at an interesting time as WhatsApp, the company that Acton co-founded, is now looking to monetise their platform with a WhatsApp business app, which has been launched globally, including in India. A recent report by The Guardian also noted that WhatsApp design feature means that some encrypted messages could be read by third party.
Talking about Signal's short and long-term plans, Acton said,
In the immediate future we are focused on adding to our talented-but-small team and improving Signal Messenger. Our long-term vision is for the Signal Foundation to provide multiple offerings that align with our core mission.