‘Basis of a Lie’

Facebook Begins Controversial Integration of Messenger, Instagram

By Robert Bateman

Facebook has begun the long-planned integration of its Messenger and Instagram platforms, as governments and regulators show increasing concern about its market dominance.

The change will allow Facebook and Instagram users to send private messages to one another between platforms. Facebook also plans to include its WhatsApp platform in the integration.

Antitrust regulators in the U.S. and European Union have scrutinized Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp. Some experts told Digital Privacy News that Facebook’s plans might be designed to disrupt regulators’ activities.

“The EU didn’t want to let Facebook buy these companies,” said author and privacy campaigner Cory Doctorow.

“That deal never should have been allowed to happen.”

Ron Knox, Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

“Facebook got the merger through by promising officials they wouldn’t merge their backends,” he added. “They lied.

“Governments around the world have allowed far too many mergers to sail through on the basis of breezy promises from companies with long histories of reneging,” Doctorow said. 

“At the very least, we should stop believing them.” 

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment from Digital Privacy News.

Fined $130 Million

As part of a 2014 investigation into its acquisition of WhatsApp, Facebook told the European Commission that linking Facebook and WhatsApp users’ accounts would be technically infeasible.

In 2017, the commission found this submission to be misleading and fined Facebook $130 million.

“Facebook should never be permitted to buy another company on this basis, ever again,” Doctorow told Digital Privacy News.

“We should now force (Facebook) to divest of Instagram and WhatsApp, since the mergers were only permitted on the basis of a lie.”

“Who knows what Mark Zuckerberg thinks?”

Ian Brown, U.K. privacy consultant and author.

Last month, the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives released its report on competition in digital markets.

Ron Knox, senior researcher and writer in Kansas City, Mo., for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, argued that the report had implications for Facebook’s plans.

“The House Judiciary Committee’s investigation revealed that Facebook bought Instagram because it viewed Instagram as a nascent competitive threat,” Knox told Digital Privacy News. “That deal never should have been allowed to happen.”

The committee’s report quoted a 2012 email from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stating that the company should consider acquiring Instagram because its activities “could be very disruptive to (Facebook).”

“Now, just as Congress and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) are considering whether to unwind that merger, Facebook is further integrating its platform with Instagram in unnecessary and likely unpopular ways,” Knox said.

“This is an obvious ploy by Facebook to thwart the democratic will and power of Congress to unwind its purchase of Instagram,” he alleged.

“Congress and the FTC should carry on with their work without hesitation and undo this plainly anticompetitive merger.”

Keep Pressing Forward

But Ian Brown, a U.K.-based privacy consultant and author, told Digital Privacy News that Facebook’s plans should not stifle antitrust regulators’ work.

“Facebook got the merger through by promising officials they wouldn’t merge their backends. They lied.”

Cory Doctorow, author. Credit: Jonathan Worth.

“As a computer scientist, I don’t think it’s true to say that Facebook integrating Facebook and Instagram and later WhatsApp makes it harder to split up the company later — if regulators wanted to do that,” he said.

“You could just literally copy the software that Facebook uses behind the scenes over to the new business and let them tweak it,” Brown explained. “Then, you would have two companies running the same software initially — but over time, they could change it.”

Brown pointed to remarks made by a former Instagram employee, cited in the Judiciary Committee’s report, who suggested that Facebook could “just roll back the changes they’ve been making over the past year” and return Messenger and Instagram to two separate apps. 

“I can’t talk about Facebook’s motivation,” Brown said. “Who knows what Mark Zuckerberg thinks?

“But for whatever reason Facebook is doing this integration, it’s not a good reason to stop competition regulators from splitting up Facebook.”

Robert Bateman is a writer in Brighton, U.K.