Will regulators allow Mark Zuckerberg to create one of the largest collections of personal data in human history?
It was inevitable. At the behest of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook is reportedly planning to integrate the technical infrastructure that powers WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram to create a single, unified messaging powerhouse.
According to sources speaking to The New York Times the move will require a fundamental restructuring of how each app works. While each platform will remain separate, the technology behind them will be unified, allowing users to send messages from one to the other. For users, Zuckerberg envisions a simplified messaging service on a scale that could crush all competition. For Facebook, the move will unlock huge quantities of user information that was previously locked away in silos.
“It’s something that we should all be worried about,” says Paul Bernal, a senior law lecturer at the University of East Anglia. “It’s also a big test of the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. Will they dare take Facebook on?”
It’s a huge project – and at this early stage it is unclear how Facebook will pass a number of substantial regulatory technical hurdles. The work is expected to be completed by early 2020 at the latest, according to people involved in the project.
The plans will likely attract the attention of regulators, especially in the European Union which closely scrutinised Facebook’s February 2014 acquisition of WhatsApp. “Frankly, I think the authorities in the EU at least should be looking at trying to stop this – and even take it further, to try to break up Facebook. This could be the trigger for some serious action,” Bernal says.
Despite Zuckerberg’s insistence that the integration be made a priority at Facebook, it remains to be seen how the company will get the move past regulators who have previously looked upon its WhatsApp data-sharing arrangements with concern.
At the time of its 2014 ruling on the $19 billion deal, the Commission said Facebook could complete the takeover as “Messenger and WhatsApp are not close competitors”. It added there would still be plenty of competition for consumers if WhatsApp and Messenger were both owned by the same company.
EU regulators returned to the merger in 2016 when Facebook attempted to link phone numbers from WhatsApp to Facebook accounts. Users of Messenger and Facebook don’t have to share their phone numbers with the company, while WhatsApp needs a phone number to work. In 2017, the EU slapped Facebook with a €110m fine for not being transparent about how it linked Facebook and WhatsApp data.
At the time of the merger, Facebook told the EU there was no easy way to link this information while EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager said the firm knew all-too-well it was possible. WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton later admitted he was “coached” to tell regulators it would be hard to merge the two systems.
In March 2018, the UK’s Information Commissioner said the data sharing would be unlawful. WhatsApp signed an undertaking saying no sharing would take place in the UK until it could legally do so under GDPR.
Now, as it builds a platform to integrate Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram, Facebook will likely face further questions about how user data is shared across its services.
Stitching together three very different technical platforms into a single system also raises a number of technical questions. Chief among them is how cross-platform, end-to-end encryption will work. On a unified platform, a message sent from WhatsApp to Facebook Messenger would require both WhatsApp and Messenger to hold the decryption key.
Matthew Green, a cryptography professor at John Hopkins University, questioned whether WhatsApp’s encryption will be weakened to match implementations on Messenger and Instagram. “Facebook’s current encryption on WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger is very limited,” he tweeted. “This move could be potentially good or bad for security/privacy. But given recent history and financial motivations of Facebook, I wouldn’t bet my lunch money on “good”.“
Instagram could be one of the most difficult challenges when it comes to encryption. “There would need to be a decision if encryption is on by default, like in WhatsApp, or opt-in like in Facebook Messenger,” says Lukasz Olejnik, a research associate at the University of Oxford's Centre for Technology and Global Affairs. “Furthermore, it is not clear if Instagram users would be able to share securely the specific Instagram content such as Stories.”
Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer and now a cybersecurity professor at Stanford University, said the company needed to carefully consider how it brings its apps together. He tweeted that Facebook should hold discussions with privacy groups, the media, charities dealing with online abuse and other interested parties before it makes any changes. A Facebook spokesperson said: “As you would expect, there is a lot of discussion and debate as we begin the long process of figuring out all the details of how this will work.”
The unification of its four core platforms – Facebook itself, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp – will also likely help Facebook to create a single database of users. While WhatsApp identifies users by their phone numbers alone, Facebook and Messenger ask users to provide their real identities. Connecting together different profiles, and information such as real names, email addresses and phone numbers, Facebook would be able to create far more detailed profiles of its users, providing further clout to its already vast advertising business.
For Facebook, it is an opportunity to become for communication what Google has become for search: an all-encompassing platform. And if more people spend more time on Facebook’s apps, that’s great news for the company’s advertising business.
But history holds important lessons. At the time of their acquisitions, Zuckerberg promised both WhatsApp and Instagram autonomy and independence from Facebook. Last April, WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum left Facebook amid reported disputes over the protection and handling of user data. A month earlier, Acton wrote on Twitter that it was time to delete Facebook.
Then, in September last year, Instagram founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger left the company as reports emerged that Zuckerberg had been exerting more and more control. According to The New York Times, a number of WhatsApp employees have since clashed with Zuckerberg over his integration plans.
For Facebook, the bottom line is the bottom line. In the third quarter of 2018, the most recent for which figures are available, the company generated $13.7 billion in revenue, with the majority of that derived from Facebook itself. If Facebook is able to bring Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp together it not only gives the company tremendous scale, it also has the potential to deliver tremendous profits.