Photo Credit: WSJ

For a company that endured a truly awful 2018, you’d have thought that the priority at board level for Facebook this year would be to tread carefully. Regardless of who was to blame for what in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the constant suggestion that lax advertising standards practices allowed Russians to use the platform to abuse the 2016 Presidential election, the twelve months they’ve just endured have done untold damage to the company’s PR and image. Some senior investors have even called on founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to resign, but instead, he’s committed to staying on and steadying the ship.

Based on the news that’s come out of Facebook HQ in early 2019, Zuckerberg’s idea of ‘steadying the ship’ is very different from the definition most people have.

The latest big idea from the social media giant – an idea that couldn’t have made it as far as it has without the personal approval of Zuckerberg – is to merge the company’s three major messaging platforms together. To be completely clear on what we’re talking about here, that’s making Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp users capable of inter-platform communication. It was the New York Times which first broke the story, reporting that four senior figures within the company had verified the news.

Under the proposal, although the three apps will continue to function separately, messages could be sent from one platform to another, even if the recipient of the message doesn’t have an account on the platform the message is being sent from. In short, a Facebook user may be able to send you a WhatsApp message, even if you don’t have an active Facebook account.

Unsurprisingly, this proposal has already met with stiff criticism. There have already been repeated concerns raised about Facebook either selling, losing or otherwise failing to secure data on the Facebook platform alone. Facebook has constantly and consistently stated that they do not sell user data, but have been forced to confess to data security lapses in the past. Users have understandable concerns about how making communication possible across three previously-independent apps would be possible without putting data at further risk of misuse.

This all marks a dramatic fall from grace in the eyes of the public for Mark Zuckerberg. His bank balance may not have been affected, and he may not have much reason to care, but being hauled before Congress and forced to explain the actions of his company started a process of the public viewing him as untrustworthy. That perception that won’t be helped by this proposal, which could be construed as Zuckerberg wanting his companies to have even more access to your data and communications.

It all started so well for him a decade-or-so ago; the young and fresh-faced entrepreneur was the antithesis of what we’d come to expect a businessman to look like. He didn’t even seem like he wanted to be a businessman; he’d just made a great website and accidentally become rich in the process.

His story could be compared to the Enchanted Prince of the fairytale; he’d been an awkward and reserved teenager at college who’d been touched by the rise of the social media age, and blossomed into a pioneer who was heralded as the dawn of a new era. In short, he was a frog kissed by a princess. That’s the tale as has been relayed in children’s books, in movies, and even in the Enchanted Prince slot game on the roseslots.com website. In fact, it’s the slot game that probably bears the best comparison, because people place money on the outcome of the tale. If everything lines up for you in the Enchanted Prince slot, the hero wins out, and you take home the game’s jackpot. Zuckerberg was the handsome prince the investors all bet on. Some of them may now have buyer’s remorse. 

Perhaps they should have paid more attention to the original Brothers Grimm version of the tale; it wasn’t the kiss of a princess that transformed the frog, it was the act of her violently throwing it against the wall in disgust. Concerned shareholders may once again be considering a similar course of action to persuade Zuckerberg to change course.

If the merging of the messaging systems is to go ahead, regulators may find themselves having to answer awkward questions of their own as to how Facebook was allowed to acquire WhatsApp and Instagram in the first place without falling foul of antitrust legislation. Instagram was purchased for something in the region of $1bn in 2012, with WhatsApp following for a staggering $19bn two years later. That gave Facebook a huge and unassailable share of the social media and instant messaging market, which in retrospect looks like it should have had more scrutiny applied to it.

What may yet attract the attention of the lawyers is a statement that Facebook made to the FTC as an assurance during the WhatsApp acquisition. Specifically, in a letter, Facebook committed to keeping WhatsApp as a separate entity to Facebook and honoring its commitments to privacy and security. It’s difficult to imagine how that commitment can be maintained if the security provisions of the service are about to be ripped up and meshed together with Facebook and Instagram.

Facebook’s own take on this is that nothing will change on a surface level for the vast majority of its users, and that combining aspects of the services together is part of their objective of providing a “fast, reliable and private” messaging service. They’re also at pains to point out that discussions about this are still at an early stage, and that nothing is going to change in the immediate future.

From a consumer point of view, there are many WhatsApp users who don’t have Facebook, and many Facebook users who don’t have WhatsApp. There are Instagram users who make use of that platform, but not either of the other two. Perhaps of more concern is the fact that there are people who have deliberately closed their Facebook account, or blocked other people on it, out of a desire to preserve their own safety and security. If Facebook users can now contact them via their Instagram account, they’re likely to feel personally let down and compromised by these proposed changes.

These are murky waters for Facebook to swim in, and it may be in their best interests not to dip their toes in them at all.