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(LEAD) (ITU) (Yonhap Interview) Privacy uncompromisable in messenger service: Viber CEO

2014/10/28 14:19

By Kang Yoon-seung

BUSAN, Oct. 28 (Yonhap) -- Talmon Marco, the CEO and founder of free mobile messenger service provider Viber, said Tuesday the company puts the highest priority on ensuring the privacy of its users, making the application popular throughout the world.

"There are several strengths that we focus on. Viber is more localized, it's better designed for different markets, not just strong in one market but in multiple markets," Marco told Yonhap News Agency in an interview. "(But) our dedication to security and privacy are two things which made Viber popular in many countries where users are concerned about safety."

   Marco's statements have resonance in South Korea where messenger operators and investigative agencies have clashed in the past weeks over allowing access to chat records.

Daum Kakao, operator of South Korea's top messenger service Kakao Talk, said it will not grant authorities access to the chat records of its users, defying the prosecution after it said it would investigate malicious and false rumors circulating on social network services.

The prosecution's move had caused users of Kakao Talk to switch over to other messenger services, including Viber, in droves.

Marco declined to comment on the controversy in South Korea.

"I am not familiar with Kakao Talk. What I can tell you is that Viber does not have the capability to listen or record conversations, or to capture messages. We never developed such capability," Marco said. "We also never provide a single audio recording or messages of users to anybody. Never happened, never will."

   Viber, launched in 2010 by Marco and three other Israeli partners, claims some 360 million users from 193 countries, with services provided in 38 languages including English, Hebrew, Japanese, and Korean. The service provider was acquired by Japan-based online retailer Rakuten Corp. earlier this year at US$900 million, but Marco said Viber operates independently even after the acquisition.

Marco said Viber is developing new sources of profit, aiming to overcome the limits of a free messenger service.

"Currently, we sell stickers, and we are thinking of introducing games later this year," Marco said. The firm started Viber Out last year, allowing users to make phone calls through the app, even if the other party does not have a Viber account.

Viber is in an ongoing lawsuit with SK Telecom, a South Korean mobile carrier, who accused it of patent infringement early this year.

"They claimed that we infringed several of their patents, specifically four," Marco said.

"We are not big in Korea... we are thinking they are looking for (an) easier target. But at the end of the day, I can guess SK (Telecom)'s objective is to stop companies like Viber and Kakao Talk from operating and force all Korean users back to short message services," he said.

SK Telecom said in a statement that the lawsuit "is aimed at protecting the company's patent rights and prevent (our) business models from being infringed. We cannot disclose other details, as the lawsuit is still going on in court."

   Marco was in Busan to attend the Global ICT Premier Forum, being held alongside the 19th International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Plenipotentiary Conference. The ITU is an information and communications arm of the U.N. that sets technological standards, allocates radio frequencies and satellite orbits and works to improve the quality of communication services.