The Interface

By Casey Newton

Why WhatsApp and Instagram are just names now



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January 25 · Issue #279 · View online
The Interface
Earlier this year I mentioned that I would be taking the newsletter to four days a week, but would do Friday edition whenever the news called for it.
Today, the news called for it.
Let’s start with Mike Isaac’s scoop in the New York Times: Facebook will unify the infrastructure powering messages on Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, with a goal of finishing the work by early next year:
That will bring together three of the world’s largest messaging networks, which between them have more than 2.6 billion users, allowing people to communicate across the platforms for the first time.
The move has the potential to redefine how billions of people use the apps to connect with one another while strengthening Facebook’s grip on users, raising antitrust, privacy and security questions. It also underscores how Mr. Zuckerberg is imposing his authority over units he once vowed to leave alone.
These changes have been in the works for some time. Step one came in May, when Mark Zuckerberg placed trusted deputies in roles at WhatsApp and Instagram. Step two was a longer process, and involved managing the recalcitrant founders of WhatsApp and Instagram out of the company. And now that those divisions are just Facebook teams by other names, they can be fully, technically integrated into the rest of the operation.
What does it mean? Here are two angles to consider.
One is antitrust. The last time the US government roused itself to the work of breaking up a tech giant came two decades ago, when it sought the separation of the Internet Explorer browser from Microsoft Windows. Last year, Preston Gralla walked us through the history:
Microsoft argued that Internet Explorer was an integral part of Windows, that its code was required for Windows to operate properly, and that unbundling it from Windows and allowing people to easily use other browsers would significantly harm the operating system. It was a ludicrous argument, and the court rightly ruled against Microsoft. It forced Microsoft to let people easily use other browsers than Internet Explorer.
Ludicrous though the argument may have been, we may be about to hear it again. If the Federal Trade Commission ever planned to compel Facebook to spin out WhatsApp and Instagram — a big if, I know — you can imagine the company explaining that there was no longer such a thing as “WhatsApp” or “Instagram.” Going forward, those names will refer only to their respective graphical user interfaces. Behind the curtain, there is only Facebook. It’s a characteristically savvy — and ruthless — move from Zuckerberg and his lieutenants.
A second angle to consider: encryption. As part of the plan, Facebook has promised to bring end-to-end encryption to its entire suite of messaging apps. (It is currently enabled by default in WhatsApp, and can be activated inside Messenger by creating a “secret” chat.)
Facebook’s former security chief, Alex Stamos, says this would be a boon to user privacy. “Facebook Messenger and IG going E2E encrypted would pass up ‘WhatsApp encryption day’ as the most impactful uplift of communications privacy in human history,” he wrote on Twitter, adding: “We should support the idea and demand transparency in the safety-privacy-UX balancing decisions and technical details.”
Alec Muffett, a former Facebook security engineer, agreed, tweeting that the move could enhance data privacy for billions of people. He also speculates that metadata shared between WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook could be useful in building a business that would support them. (Building a good ad business around messages when you have no understanding of their contents is a profound challenge.)
In short, there are lots of good reasons to integrate these apps, from Facebook’s perspective at least, and increasingly little reason not to. The only real reason to hesitate would have been government intervention, but the government was shut down for the past 35 days. And even if the FTC were concerned, it seems unlikely that they would act in the three weeks until the government (in all likelihood) shuts down again.

Fake news on Twitter during the 2016 U.S. presidential election
One Man’s Obsessive Fight to Reclaim His Cambridge Analytica Data
Flood of complaints to EU countries since data law adopted
Russian disinformation system influences PH social media
Is Big Tech Merging With Big Brother? Kinda Looks Like It
NewsGuard, NuzzelRank, and the gold rush to rank media organizations’ trustworthiness.
How to Stop Misinformation
The Covington Drama Shows Fake Video Isn't The Future Of Propaganda — Real Video Works Just Fine
Journalists must attack Facebook and Google's stranglehold on ad revenue.
And finally ...
A community fund for BuzzFeed News
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