WhatsApp doubles down on “communities” with end-to-end encryption

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With more than 2 billion users, WhatsApp is the world’s most popular end-to-end encrypted communication platform. The company says that throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, users have expanded their communication options on the platform, uniting to cope with challenges from parenting and education to mutual aid and political organizing. In response, WhatsApp announced on Thursday that it is developing a new set of features known as Communities that will allow the app to work like productivity software like Slack or Microsoft Teams. In addition to the already available private messages and group chats, users will be able to combine sets of group chats together under the umbrella of an organization or a common theme.

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Communities will be hosted in a tab separate from the standard WhatsApp landing page and offer a way to organize disparate channels. These groups will also have new features for admins to send messages to the entire community and add and remove subgroups. WhatsApp says it is now starting a limited beta of communities with support for both iOS and Android, so it can get information before finalizing the feature.

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“We’ve been using Communities ourselves for the past few months while we had all the elements we needed, and it helped us find what we needed and the additions we needed to make,” says Will Cathcart, Head of WhatsApp at Meta. “But I think it will be especially helpful for us to have other communities around the world that deal with very different types of problems and challenges use it, because we will get feedback that is better suited to a much wider range of needs than just what we’re going to get from our own team.”

End-to-end encrypted communication services such as WhatsApp offer users privacy and security guarantees because the platforms are designed in such a way that the companies that operate them cannot access the content of users’ messages and calls. This means, however, that offensive and illegal messages also receive the same protection as the problem that plagues WhatsApp and other platforms. The company tried limit the spread of disinformation using tools such as forwarding restrictions and reporting mechanisms to approach the issue from different angles. With the help of communities, there is the potential to address these issues further, Cathcart says, by empowering administrators who have a finer understanding of their organizations or groups and creating structures that can flag potentially abusive behavior.

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Users will need to be invited to join communities—they won’t be able to simply search for open, free-for-all channels like services like Telegram. And Cathcart says WhatsApp will expand its forwarding restrictions to communities, so messages that have already been forwarded can only be forwarded to one group at a time.

WhatsApp already has access to “metadata” about users’ messages – things like the account name, IP address and timestamp associated with each message. Similarly, communities will be end-to-end encrypted, but WhatsApp will be able to see metadata and some information about how the community is organized.

“Even though the communication is private, we will have some information,” says Cathcart. “Today we have group chat names and we see a profile picture for them. We will also learn the name of the community and some of its structures. And we’ve had a lot of success using the methods we use to combat abuse of that data, combined with the reports we get from people. We think this is a good model where we can address some of the anti-abuse issues without violating people’s privacy or seeing their private messages.”

Whatsapp’s parent company, Meta, recently outlined this approach in great detail in an independent report commissioned by the company on the impact of end-to-end encryption on human rights, as well as in its own response to that report.

While it will take time for the Communities beta to complete, some of the features built for WhatsApp will roll out to the regular service in the next few weeks. Cathcart says that there will soon be emoji reactions to individual messages and the ability to send files up to 2 gigabytes in size. WhatsApp will also start supporting larger group voice calls with up to 32 people. And group administrators will be able to remove messages from the group at their discretion.

Communities will be a massive extension of what WhatsApp is and can be. And while the company is certainly not the first to try to use end-to-end encrypted chat to improve productivity, it is by far the largest at a couple of billion people.

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