So much of what we do on our smartphone is driven by services, as companies provide us with access to things like cloud storage, social-media publishing, and instant messaging. And while many of us default to accessing these services through their official apps, plenty of third-party alternatives exist. Some of the companies behind these services are more tolerant of those alternatives than others, and we’ve already seen WhatsApp take heavy-handed action against such software. Now a new round of legal threats is underway, and this time the targets don’t seem to be doing anything particularly objectionable.
Over the past few days, developers behind certain apps that interface with WhatsApp have been sharing their stories of being contacted by the company with cease-and-desist letters. The letters demand that the devs halt distribution of their software and suspend all development efforts, accusing them of everything from reverse engineering WhatsApp code, to gaining unauthorized access to WhatsApp systems, to harvesting information about WhatsApp users.
If this story sounds familiar, it’s because WhatsApp has put unauthorized third-party apps in its crosshairs before, maybe most notably back in early 2015 when it went after WhatsApp+ and similar software, going so far as to temporarily ban users who dared engage with these alternatives.
While we didn’t love what WhatsApp was doing back then, nor how it went about doing it, at least we could understand some of the rationale behind why the company was so upset. After all, there we had an app using the WhatsApp name without permission and seeking to replace the official client on users’ devices.
But now this new wave of apps on the receiving end of WhatsApp’s threats are of a different breed entirely. The developer who first sounded the alarm is the creator of DirectChat, an app that provides a ChatHead-style interface for dozens of popular messaging programs. Rather than replacing any of those original apps, or hacking into communications between those apps and their servers, it instead works through Android’s existing notification system.
That’s a big difference from apps like WhatsApp+ that attempt to replace official apps; instead, DirectChat is more of an external add-on, grabbing notifications as WhatsApp delivers them and allowing users to interact with them in a new way, through things like the standard NotificationListenerService and DirectReply Android APIs.
It’s hard to understand how an app that uses officially Google-sanctioned ways to communicate with other software on your phone could be infringing on that software’s rights, as WhatsApp claims is going on here. While the company obviously has strong feelings about any app that attempts to modify the overall WhatsApp user experience, it’s not at all clear in this case what, if any, legal leg it has to stand on. Many of the claims in its letter are demonstrably false in the case of DirectChat, and presumably in other apps receiving similar notices.
With the vast resources of Facebook behind it, threats from WhatsApp have the potential to be seriously intimidating to independent developers. It’s unclear at this time how this saga might play out, but for the sake of software freedom, we’re sure hopeful that the developers on the receiving end of these threats find the support they need to push back and continue offering their apps.