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Why Facebook’s mega messaging merger will make you rethink social media

Mark Zuckerberg plans to merge Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp and Instagram. Photo/Getty

After Facebook’s horrible year of fallout from numerous privacy violations, you’d think Mark Zuckerberg would be keen to take his foot off the gas and steady the ship. 

Instead, the Facebook founder has started the year by confirming reports that he plans to merge the messaging systems of his three social media platforms: Facebook Messenger, Instagram and Whatsapp.

The plan, to be completed late this year or early next year, would see the three platforms remain as separate apps with their own identity, but build a common architecture beneath them allowing users to message from one platform to another, something which currently isn’t possible.

In New Zealand, Facebook Messenger was the most popular of the three at the start of 2018, according to Statista, preferred by 56 per cent of messaging users. Whatsapp was used by 22 per cent, with Instagram not making it into the top five (Snapchat, Skype and Viber are ahead of it).

It is a plan, unprecedented in scale, that would allow 2.6 billion people around the world to send instant messages to each other. It fits with Zuckerberg’s philosophy of “bringing the world closer together”.

But it is a plan that should send a chill down the spines of billions of Instagram and Whatsapp users in particular and one already drawing concern from regulators.

What’s in it for Facebook?

Facebook itself is running out of steam. Growth has slowed and, though the Cambridge Analytica scandal and fake news revelations haven’t significantly dented its usage. In its 2018 fourth quarter results released today, Facebook reported 2.32 billion monthly active users, in line with analysts’ estimates and US$16.9 billion in revenue.

Still, there’s a pervading sense that Big Blue’s glory days are behind it.

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Zuckerberg foresaw this day and was smart enough to buy Instagram and Whatsapp, Facebook’s two emerging competitors, the latter for an eye-watering US$19 billion in 2014. Those networks appealed to a younger audience, allowing Facebook to serve all of the demographics and generate ad revenue from companies looking to reach them.

Making it easier for Facebook users to message their kids on Instagram or talk to colleagues who are on Whatsapp, is likely to create strong inertia, keeping Facebook users from switching platforms.

It also removes the silos of user information and behavioural analytics that currently sit separately between those three platforms. With rewritten architecture to capture every username, mobile phone number and interaction between users, Facebook has a hugely powerful tool to mine data and yield insights about the relationships between a third of the world’s population. Those insights can be turned into advertising dollars.

The social side effects

The convenience the social network merger presents has to be weighed against the potential downsides – which are numerous.

At the moment, Whatsapp in particular, is a largely advert-free haven, with a simple interface and end-to-end encryption keeping the contents of your messages safe from interception.

Whatsapp’s founders, who became billionaires with the sale of their little start-up, had pushed for the encryption, pledged to keep the network ad-free and for Whatsapp to operate independently under Facebook ownership.

Gradually, most of those bottom lines have been eroded away as Zuckerberg has exerted control over Whatsapp. He even questioned the encryption the founders were so passionate about. Instagram’s messaging system is not currently encrypted. Facebook users must activate the “Secret Conversations” feature to encrypt their chat conversation, which few users do.

Facebook can therefore mine data about messaging interactions and scan text of instant messages on Facebook and Instagram in a way that is off limits on Whatsapp.

The disillusioned Whatsapp founders opted to leave, one of them, Brian Acton, sacrificing US$850 million by exiting a year earlier than anticipated.

Instagram has adverts but they are less annoying and aggressively displayed as in the Facebook newsfeed. Instagram, however, is the home of social influencers, who bring their own flavour of misinformation to their carefully constructed photos-cum-product endorsements.

While reports suggest Zuckerberg is willing to extend end-to-end encryption to Facebook and Instagram, the sacrifices made in doing so pale in comparison to what he will gain.

As the mass spying revelations from Edward Snowden and others have revealed in recent years, reading the actual contents of our messages isn’t necessary to find out a lot about us. The metadata that goes with those messages – time, date, location, device type, username etc, reveal a lot. In Facebook’s case, creating one massive pool of data will aid it in its ad-targeting efforts.

It could also see misinformation, spam and fake news spreading faster. While Instagram and Whatsapp have not been immune to the deliberate spread of information across their networks, Facebook’s newsfeed is where the most insidious content presents itself. With the three networks united, it will be easier for people to unwittingly spread misinformation to their friends and contacts on a major scale.

Will it fly?

Politicians in the US have taken a belated interest in Facebook since Zuckerberg’s appearance on Capitol Hill last year to try and explain how the company had dealt with the Cambridge Analytica data breaches.

Now they are asking why Facebook was allowed to scoop up its messaging competitors without any serious regulatory scrutiny. That horse has bolted, but there are two areas regulators in the US and elsewhere could move to thwart Zuckerberg’s plans.

The Europeans are already warning that any such messaging platform merger would have to satisfy the provisions of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) introduced to European Union countries last year and applying to any company that stores and uses data of EU citizens. It is so far-reaching that Facebook, Google and other tech giants, have updated their policies globally to ensure compliance.

One of the provisions of GDPR is that data is used only for the purposes outlined to users when it is gathered. A greater degree of transparency will be required on Facebook’s part to assure regulators that the bigger pool of data isn’t being tapped for purposes users aren’t fully aware of. Already, the EU’s Data Protection Commission has asked for an urgent meeting with Facebook to assess its proposals.

Facebook may be able to weather the data privacy storm, but it could also face anti-trust action in the EU and its home country as it faces arguments that merging the platforms simply gives it too much market power.

Facebook and Google already claim nearly 60 per cent of the US digital ad market between them. With broader ad-targeting potential through messaging, which is the new growth sector in social media, arguments will be made that Facebook’s reach makes it that much harder for rivals to compete for advertising revenue.

But successful anti-trust action – and US law does allow for the break-up of anti-competitive companies, would require different measures of the impacts of anti-competitive behaviour than have been applied in the past.

“If the question the authorities ask is whether social network users pay more because of Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram, the answer is no, because social networks don’t require users to pay in dollars,” writes Singapore-based media law expert Mark Cenite.

Instead, he points out, we “pay” with the data we disclose. We are the product which Facebook sells to advertisers.

“If the question the authorities ask is whether the acquisition has undercut competition — consumer options — the answer is surely yes,” adds Cenite.

The Wickr interface. Wickr is an alternative to Zuckerberg's soon-to-be messaging service empire.

Time to opt out?

We will have to see exactly what Facebook’s messaging merger will look like. But the eroded trust in Zuckerberg and his social empire has already led some to look for alternatives.

Of those there are many, but none that have the scale of a Facebook or Whatsapp.

Still, how big a messaging circle do you need really? One antidote to the dominance of Facebook is participating in smaller messaging groups on platforms with a stronger privacy imperative and less aggressive efforts to turn you into the product.

Three messaging app alternatives

Viber: It is free, offers encryption and is a pretty reliable service if you are running it over a good internet connection. This is my messaging app of choice for keeping in touch with friends and family around the world. There are some ads – not in the chat or calling interface, but in areas of the app such as the “Discover” section, which I never use anyway. There is group chat and disappearing messages. I’ve never been a huge fan of the interface, but it does the job and has a causal, fun feel to it with chat extensions and good support for GIFs and emojis. Available on iOS, Android, Windows, Mac and Linux.

Signal: The best choice if you really value your privacy. It is based on the Open Whisper open source encryption system, which is considered highly secure and trusted. Group chat and disappearing messages are included. Because it is open source, there is a full transparency around the code base underpinning it, allowing experts to vet its security features. Everything between Signal users is encrypted; sending SMS messages to contacts outside of the network doesn’t offer that protection. Signal is linked to your phone number and has other security features, such as the ability to add a pass phrase to a message. Free and ad-free, therefore a bit minimalist on the design front, but covers all of the messaging basics. Developed with the support of grants, so there are no apparent plans to take it commercial. Available on iOS, Android, Windows, Mac, Linux.

Wickr Me: Wickr in general is more aimed at teams in companies, where corporate plans underpin its business model. But Wickr Me is free, ad-free and fully encrypted. Wickr Pro is free up to 10 users. It has highly regarded security features and is not linked to a phone number or email address. You simply set up a username and link to other contacts on the network so offers a high level of anonymity. A clean and simple user interface, easy to get going on quickly. The app will even tell you if someone takes a screengrab of a message you send them. Available on iOS, Android, Windows, Mac, Linux.

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