Signal names Google walkout organizer as new company president

Signal officially has a new president.

For the newly created position, the company behind the encrypted messaging app has hired Meredith Whittaker, a former Google manager and co-founder of the AI Now Institute.

Whittaker made the announcement herself in a post on the Signal blog, where she outlined the strategic nature of the role in guiding the organization towards long-term sustainability.

“As President I will dedicate myself to helping Signal build a long taproot so it can grow and thrive in dynamic climates,” Whittaker wrote. “In this role I will be working with Signal’s CEO and leadership, with a particular focus on guiding Signal’s strategy, ensuring our financial sustainability, sharpening and broadening Signal’s public communications, and whatever else is needed to strengthen the app and the org.”

Whittaker is a technology researcher who became widely known as one of the organizers of a mass walkout at Google in 2018 in protest of the company’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against top executives. Within Google, she also became known for her advocacy for ethical AI and co-founded the AI Now Institute at NYU while still employed by the company.

In 2019, Whittaker left Google, becoming one of many walkout coordinators who claimed to have experienced retaliation for their internal activism. Her depth of knowledge and moral framework was recognized more recently when she joined the FTC as a senior adviser on AI in November 2021.

As president, Whittaker will join Signal at a time of transition for the company. She takes up the role in the same year that Signal founder Moxie Marlinspike stepped down as CEO — a position that currently remains unfilled — and in a moment when questions remain about the overall sustainability of the project.

The company is also the developer of the Signal Protocol, an open-source cryptographic protocol for end-to-end encrypted messages that has been incorporated into WhatsApp since 2016. As a standalone app, Signal has around 40 million users — a small fraction of WhatsApp’s 2 billion or so users but enough to make it a significant player in the messaging landscape.

Employees were told last year that, for Signal to be self-sustaining, the app would need to reach around 100 million users. Though the user base has seen a period of rapid growth in recent years, workers at the company have raised concerns over lacking adequate resources to deal with potentially abusive uses of the app.

In comments given to The Washington Post, Whittaker seemed to suggest that she would push for more users to pay for the app. Developing and maintaining it costs “tens of millions of dollars per year,” Whittaker said — and making up those costs without data collection will be an enormous challenge going forward.

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