Facebook’s plans to integrate Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp may provide more profits for them and more convenience to you, but tech experts also fear it will mean less privacy for just about everyone.
From a business standpoint, Facebook’s merger makes sense: it will likely result in cost savings for Facebook and simultaneously improve users’ messaging and posting activities by merging them into one platform.
But merging the three apps will also allow Facebook to put together a more comprehensive picture of users’ lives by combining three different data sets.
“Data becomes more powerful when it’s combined,” said Aram Sinnreich, chair of communication studies at American University. “There is a consumer expectation that if you sign up for Instagram and not for WhatsApp, then your data will exist only in one of those silos. Most consumers are not even aware that WhatsApp and Instagram are operated by Facebook, so they have a reasonable expectation that those will be treated separately and not be combined to create a much more thorough portrait of their lives, their personal location information, their network of contacts, etc.”
People use the three different apps for different reasons, and people who use Instagram and Messenger may not necessarily use WhatsApp, or some users might use WhatsApp but not Instagram. If the three apps merge, suddenly your professional contacts who you message on WhatsApp and have no part of your personal life will be able to see your personal activities and recreational pursuits on Instagram — essentially eliminating users’ ability to keep certain aspects of their life concealed from certain contacts or groups of people.
“The collapse of those boundaries can be embarrassing at best and catastrophic at worst for the end user,” Sinnreich told InsideSources. “I have a friend who is a high school principal and also a successful drag queen. It’s up to him where his life as a drag queen is viewable. Those spheres are separate for a reason.”
To further complicate the issue, there is no regulatory playbook for how to deal with a move like this. If Facebook’s plan is anticompetitive, for example, then it’s already too late to pursue antitrust litigation. Regulators should have stopped Facebook from acquiring Instagram and WhatsApp in the first place, said Lawrence White, professor of economics at New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business.
When Facebook acquired Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014, regulators didn’t bat an eye, despite consumer complaints file with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over WhatsApp’s data collecting practices following the acquisition.
According to White, the FTC probably cleared both acquisitions based on the belief that online advertising is the heart of the tech industry’s business model.
“They would have been thinking, where do they make their money? In online advertising, there are multiple players like Google and Amazon and lots of other guys out there competing in the online advertising area, so it would have been hard to bring an antitrust case against them,” White said. “The only other case that they could have tried, which would have been even harder, would have been one that said, consumer attention is a relevant market and with this acquisition there is going to be less innovation in consumer attention going forward and more possibility for abuse going forward.”
Many economists now believe tech companies’ business models revolve around consumers’ attention. This “attention economy” purports that whichever tech company dominates consumers’ attention will be able to harvest the most data and the most ad revenue.
If a tech giant like Facebook secures so much of consumers’ attention by buying and merging various tech platforms, then Facebook essentially dominates the market. That’s where the antitrust argument comes in.
But, neither Sinnreich or White think U.S. regulators will do anything about Facebook’s integration plan, other than tweet their concerns.
“I can imagine a few people standing up in Congress and saying we think this is a problem and the FTC should look into this,” White said. “It wouldn’t be an antitrust issue, it would be concerns about privacy, and my guess is at the end of the day they won’t do a whole lot.”
In Europe, Facebook may face more intense regulatory scrutiny due to their General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The Irish Data Protection Commission, for example, issued a statement yesterday announcing plans to “closely scrutiniz[e] Facebook’s plans as they develop, particularly insofar as they involve the sharing and merging of personal data between different Facebook companies. Previous proposals to share data between Facebook companies have given rise to significant data protection concerns and the Irish DPC will be seeking early assurances that all such concerns will be fully taken into account by Facebook in further developing this proposal. It must be emphasized that ultimately the proposed integration can only occur in the EU if it is capable of meeting all of the requirements of the GDPR.”