ECONOMY

Signal Jabs at Facebook and Navigates Growing Pains as Popularity Surges

Current and former staffers, who asked not to be identified either because of concerns of breaching confidentiality agreements or professional retaliation, describe Marlinspike as a technical genius but a stubborn boss who has resisted growing Signal’s small team. He long maintained a “death grip” on Signal’s underlying code and servers, a former employee said. That control at times caused internal frustration, several current and former employees said. But in recent months, he has gradually relinquished his tight control over the company’s infrastructure, entrusting other executives and employees with the ability to modify code and access closely guarded servers and encryption keys, according to the two current employees.

Lately, Marlinspike’s company has also instigated a public relations feud with Facebook. Signal suggested in a May 4 blog post that Facebook refused to let Signal buy ads on Instagram that sought to highlight how the tech giant gathers and makes money off its users’ data. Facebook disputes Signal’s account, calling it a “stunt.” “Running the ads was never their goal,” a Facebook spokesperson said. “It was about getting publicity.”

Still, Signal’s campaign against Facebook, if successful, could lure more users but add strain to the company’s skeletal staff.

Signal’s issues aren’t dissimilar to other technology companies that have struggled with rapid growth. Google and Facebook, among others, have faced internal dissent as the companies have grown from scrappy and idealistic startups to tech giants.

But Signal is different in several significant ways: it’s a nonprofit that relies on contributions to fund its operations and is run by a founder who has shown little interest in the traditional rewards of corporate success. Can a nonprofit run by a one-time anarchist pose a serious challenge to Big Tech?

Signal can benefit from “people searching for more viable and virtuous alternatives,” said Dan Blah, co-founder of Reset and the Open Technology Fund, organizations that financially support technology projects that advance human rights and democracy.  In his role at the Open Technology Fund, Blah helped provide about $3 million funding to Marlinspike for the development of Signal.

Blah said the question is whether Signal can rise to the challenge. “They are going to have no lack of opportunity to grow,” he said. “But from a sustainability perspective, can they meet that growth? Within the current market and political realities, it’s a wild card.”

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