Last week, a report coming out of The New York Times cited that Facebook wants to combine Messenger, Instagram messages and WhatsApp into one platform. Essentially creating the largest messaging network on planet earth – there are four billion user accounts between the three messaging platforms. But given Facebook's checkered past, that is something that should scare every single person.
Before we get too deep here, it's worth mentioning that this is a report, and has not been confirmed by anyone at Facebook just yet. However, this is coming out of The New York Times, who has a pretty good track record when it comes to these sorts of things. So it is very likely to be true.
Given Facebook's recent privacy issues, combining these apps cannot happen
It's no secret that Facebook's 2018 was one of the worst ever for the company, and 2019 didn't start out much better either. Facebook had a few privacy scandals in 2018, with the largest one being the Cambridge Analytica scandal in April. There have been other scandals since then, though not at the same magnitude. However, if there's one thing we learned about Facebook in 2018, it's that it does not care about our privacy. And there's no reason why we, as users, should be giving them more information than they already have.
Linking all three together is going to be somewhat tough. Facebook Messenger and Instagram won't be too tough, as you can already link your Facebook to Instagram and even sign into Instagram with Facebook. But WhatsApp is a bit tricker.
With WhatsApp, you only need a phone number to login. Which is also a problem for users, as you are unable to use WhatsApp on more than one device. But what this means is that you would need to tie your phone number for WhatsApp to Facebook. That is something that many users are not going to be eager to do. On the flip side, what if you added your phone number to Facebook years ago, and you don't have that number anymore? Will Facebook hook you up with that number on WhatsApp even if it isn't your number anymore?
Then there's encryption. WhatsApp has encryption by default. Facebook Messenger has encryption, but users have to turn it on. Instagram has no form of encryption. However, Facebook did also state last week that it will be enabling end-to-end encryption by default on Facebook Messenger, so that everything will be encrypted. Encryption across three different services with (likely) three different accounts is going to be a tough thing to solve.
There's a lot of questions to be asked here, when it comes to privacy, and Facebook is going to have to answer them rather soon. The company is hosting its quarterly earnings for the fourth quarter this week, and it is very likely that analysts and investors are going to press Zuckerberg and other executives on the call about that report. It's likely that they will deny the report, or say that they have no information to share at this time. However, companies are usually more open with investors than with the press.
There's also the regulatory perspective
Regulation may not be a done deal for Facebook, given the fact that most of Congress did not even know how Facebook worked, when Zuckberg testified in front of Congress last summer. But with more younger congressional members joining in the mid-terms, it is more likely to happen now.
Facebook has already feared being broken up, because it does essentially have a monopoly over messaging. Owning the three largest messaging platforms available right now. Many feel that this is why Zuckerberg wants to merge all three into a single account. That way the government cannot split up the company.
However, California Representative Ro Khanna stated on Twitter this week that the purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp were clearly horizontal mergers, and that antitrust authorities should have approved the mergers before they were finished. A horizontal merger is basically consolidation in a space, where a company purchases its competitors. And that is essentially what Facebook did. It saw Instagram growing and decided to buy it. Facebook also saw WhatsApp being the biggest messaging platform in the world, and wanted it as well.
Interestingly enough, the assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice's antitrust division, Makan Delrahim, did acknowledge the plans Facebook has. Saying that consolidation within Facebook would not trigger any merger reviews. But did mention that "to the extent that somehow integrating the platforms might increase certain levels of market power that could cause anti-competitive harm, that would be an area for antitrust enforcers to look at." Delrahim assured everyone that the Justice Department will be keeping an eye on what Facebook does.
Surprisingly, Zuckerberg did ask for regulation while he was testifying before Congress over the summer. This was likely a play to get on Congress' good side, after the massive data breach that was made public. But this could also be Zuckerberg forcing Congress to regulate the social media and tech industry a bit more. Right now, it's like the wild wild west, and Facebook is reaping all of the rewards.
While the US is relatively silent, the EU is not
Meanwhile, in the European Union, antitrust watchdogs are already making their opinions known about this potential merger between the three messaging apps. In fact, the Irish Data Protection Commission is asking Facebook to give it "an urgent briefing on what is being proposed" with this merger.
The Irish Data Protection Commission is the body that regulates Facebook in the European Union, and while it has said that it understands Facebook's plans are still under initial development, it wants to seek early assurances that this merger will work under GDPR.
This isn't the first time that a watchdog has gotten involved with Facebook and its plans for WhatsApp. Back in 2016, it attempted to share user data from WhatsApp with Facebook. But the company decided to axe those plans after a data protection watchdog from the UK got involved.
The US government has been quiet so far, when it comes to this proposed merger – though they have been dealing with other things like the shutdown and the wall – the European Union is not waiting to see what Facebook is planning to do. It instead wants to know right now, so it can be shut down, if it deems it necessary. This could be another example of the EU protecting consumers around the world from evil companies like Facebook.
Now we know why Instagram and WhatsApp founders left the company recently
Last year, the founders of Instagram and WhatsApp both left the company. WhatsApp's co-founder Jan Koum left the company in April, while Instagram's co-founders left in September. Instagram's co-founders left rather abruptly. They put out statements without telling Facebook that they were doing so. Forcing Facebook's public relations team to scramble and get a statement out – several hours later. It seemed a bit odd that the co-founders of both apps decided to leave, around the same time. But now we might know why.
While we may never know the truth, it does seem like the co-founders of WhatsApp and Instagram were not happy with the direction that Zuckerberg wanted to take both apps in. In fact, Koum clashed with Zuckerberg quite a bit. And after the many privacy breaches in 2018, he called for everyone to Delete Facebook, starting the #DeleteFacebook trend on Twitter. That definitely shows that Koum was not happy with the direction that WhatsApp was going, so he took his buyout check and left.
Facebook might have finally found a way to make messaging profitable
Facebook has the largest messaging platforms available, but it somehow cannot make it profitable. Combining the three might be the way to do just that. And unfortunately, that means that ads are likely coming to WhatsApp, since it is the biggest property of the three (Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp).
It's not confirmed if this is what is going to help Facebook make messaging profitable, but this is likely high on the list of reasons to combine the three platforms. Which means more ads, and likely charging small businesses to use its platform for marketing and customer service.
When Facebook purchased Instagram and WhatsApp, many felt that this was going to inevitably happen. Even though Facebook said that the two would be running as independent companies within the Facebook umbrella. But it looks like now is the time to merge them all together under one account.
To a fresh set of eyes that has not heard about all of the issues that Facebook has had lately, this probably looks like a good thing. Instead of remembering three separate logins, it'll be just one login – and this might also mean that WhatsApp will work on more than one device, which is going to be incredible. But given Facebook's recent mistakes, this is a huge issue on many fronts.
Again, it's important to stress that Facebook has not confirmed nor denied that it is going to do this, and likely won't until they decide how to do it. So it's possible that it might not happen. But regulators should definitely step in here and keep this from happening.