Following news today that Facebook intends to more tightly integrate Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp, Congressman Ro Khanna (D-California) says the government was asleep at the switch when it failed to stop Facebook’s $1 billion acquisition of Instagram in 2012. The Congressman believes the merger constituted antitrust back then, as it does now.
“This is why there should have been far more scrutiny during Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp which now clearly seem like horizontal mergers that should have triggered antitrust scrutiny,” Khanna tweeted Friday.
According to a New York Times report, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp will continue to look mostly the same to users after the changes, but “their underlying messaging infrastructure will be unified.” The paper cited four people with knowledge of the plans. Facebook will very likely begin pooling data collected by the apps to form more complete pictures of consumers, which could increase the value of Facebook advertising. It also raises serious privacy concerns at a time when Facebook is already under the microscope after numerous privacy scandals.
Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp are among the largest social platforms in the world. “Imagine how different the world would be if Facebook had to compete with Instagram and WhatsApp,” Khanna wrote in a statement. “That would have encouraged real competition that would have promoted privacy and benefited consumers.”
Many consumers don’t even realize that Facebook owns both Instagram, the photo sharing social network, and WhatsApp, an encrypted messaging network that’s extremely popular in India, Brazil, Mexico, and Russia.
“If users didn’t think Facebook and its messaging apps were all the same company, they will have to confront that reality now,” eMarketer Principal Analyst Debra Aho Williamson said in a statement. “And knitting the messaging apps together shows that Facebook wants to exert more control over them, and that may lead to more internal executive conflict.”
The Times article comes one day after the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Mark Zuckerberg in which he explains the virtues of Facebook’s business model, which offers a free social network to users but harvests user data and uses it to target ads.
“The full-throated defense of the company marks a change in tone for Zuckerberg, who is famous for apologies and promises to do better,” comments Axios’s Ina Fried. This time it appears that Facebook decided to have Zuckerberg apologize beforehand. The op-ed appears to have been a calculated public relations move to prepare the public for the NYT story.
Reached for comment, a Facebook spokesman sent the following statement:
“We want to build the best messaging experiences we can; and people want messaging to be fast, simple, reliable and private. We’re working on making more of our messaging products end-to-end encrypted and considering ways to make it easier to reach friends and family across networks. 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.”
Zuckerberg said in the op-ed he believes some form of regulation of personal data collection is appropriate. He didn’t discuss details. Instagram made a move to appease regulators earlier this week when it announced it would limit message sharing to five people or groups at a time. The the company bowed to pressure to do so as a way of slowing the spread of fake or provocative news, which has lead to violence in countries like India.
The Federal Trade Commission is said to be considering a “record fine” for Facebook over user data the company leaked to Cambridge Analytica, a political data group that worked for Donald Trump in 2016. The FTC believes the misappropriation of data constitutes a violation of a consent decree Facebook signed with the agency in 2012.
The FTC is normally the agency that pursues antitrust violations, but it has so far brought no serious challenge to Facebook.
Khanna’s office announced Thursday that the Congressman had been select to sit on three House committees–Oversight and Reform, Armed Services, and Budget.