Why WhatsApp policy matters for Facebook

When WhatsApp forced users to accept a new policy that would endorse the sharing of data between Facebook and WhatsApp it triggered a migration to other messaging platforms. The Facebook-owned company had to extend the date of implementation and change its approach but still came back to users with a sugar-coated promise that functionality will gradually be phased out for failure to accept the policy. This has prompted some countries to challenge the social media giant legally. Why would WhatsApp insist on doing something that they know users don’t like?

The obvious reason is that this change will mean more revenue for WhatsApp by enabling businesses to interact with users with ease. What is not so obvious is that this move is about the survival of FACEBOOK as a social media giant.

In December 2020, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and 46 US states sued Facebook, accusing the firm of buying up competitors—chiefly WhatsApp and Instagram—to liquidate competition in the social media industry. The FTC antitrust lawsuit aims to force Facebook to unwind these two major acquisitions. The FTC has accused Facebook of breaking antitrust law by gobbling up many smaller social media startups and acquiring several large, well-established competitors, in what amounts to a concerted effort to build a social media monopoly. The feeling is that these deals increase Facebook’s size and hold over the social media space, but they also enabled the sharing of data among the largest social media platforms on earth.

These two giant acquisitions consolidated Facebook’s direct control over a vast portion of the social media landscape. While the Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp platforms appear to be separate social media sites to end-users, in the background Facebook is establishing closer data integration between the three platforms. And Facebook has been anything but transparent about how it is making use of the ocean of user data it gathers across the three platforms. Among other objectives, the FTC’s lawsuit asks the court to force Facebook to reverse its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp, leaving them as independent businesses that could compete with Facebook. This is one of the major reasons behind the insistence by WhatsApp for users to accept the policy.

Although the threat to break FACEBOOK will take time (or not even materialise), the company is doing everything possible to prevent this from ever happening. Part of the plan is a project which is called internally at FACEBOOK “interop”. The project is about enabling users of Messenger, Whats­App, and Instagram’s messaging feature—each historically a walled garden—would be able to communicate across all three services. For FACEBOOK this is important not only for users but more importantly to make it difficult to break social media giant into separate companies when the US Government make its decision about the company.

When users are asked to accept the policy, they are being asked to formally endorse legally the process of knitting FACEBOOK companies together. Technically all these companies are now being integrated into a single social media machine. To disentangle everything when the company is asked to break apart will be almost impossible and that is ultimately the plan.

For now, the monopoly of a single social media company may not seem harmful however indications are such that in the future this will be clearer. Prof Shoshan Zuboff is one person who has painted a clear future scenario of FACEBOOK domination. In the last chapter of her book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power” she reminds us that Mark Zuckerberg once boasted that in future Facebook would know every book, film, and song a person had ever consumed and that its predictive models would tell you what bar to go to when you arrive in a strange city, where the bartender would have your favourite drink waiting for you. This is what will be enabled at a larger scale by sharing data between separate social media platforms. What is happening here is that we are enabling Facebook to have a microscope that lets capitalists examine social behaviour at a very fine level. Zuboff points out that one Facebook engineer once said “we are trying to map out the graph of everything in the world and how it relates to each other”. Is this the future that we want? – IOL

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