According to the New York Times, Facebook is set to merge data from its three messaging services- Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp- into a single platform.
The move has since been confirmed by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself, with Zuckerberg claiming that the platform merger is not set to occur before 2020, with the process only aimed at ensuring users are able to communicate across services and benefit from end-to-end encryption. At present, such encryption is only offered by chat platform WhatsApp.
Still, the last time Facebook and WhatsApp attempted to share user information was in 2016, and the plan did not go well. The UK Information Commissioner Office (ICO) was swift in expressing its concerns about the strategy, and Facebook complied, agreeing to put the plan on ice.
In March 2018, the ICO ruled the sharing plan illegal, after which time WhatsApp voluntarily committed to only share data with its parent company to ensure compliance with EU-wide data protection regulation GDPR.
The Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, says that “WhatsApp has assured us that no UK user data has ever been shared with Facebook (other than as a ‘data processor’ [that is: it only provides WhatsApp with some assistance, such as for instance, server space]),” and that therefore a fine would not be issued under the Data Protection Act- a UK law that, in effect, oversees the implementation of GDPR.
With this latest announcement, Facebook’s new “platform merger” plan is likely to put the firm back in the sights of data protection authorities across Europe. The Irish Data Protection Commission has since asked Facebook, with its European HQ currently in Dublin, for “an urgent briefing on what is being proposed”.
So, what are the odds that Facebook’s latest merger scheme takes flight? How forbiddable a foe does the tech giant have in the EU’s strident attempts to regulate the ever-evolving industry?
“All the data will be now in one place basically,” says Sandra Wachter, lawyer and Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, asserting that the merger is bound to trigger privacy concerns, “before this, you were still able to choose what service you were using now all your private communications will be collected centrally in one place.”
“That poses questions in terms of privacy – and of cybersecurity,” Wachter continues, referring to the fact that such a merger will create a single point of vulnerability for hackers hoping to access information across all three platforms.
At the same time, competition remains a challenge. Through the purchase of Instagram and WhatsApp, Facebook has all but achieved a quasi-monopolistic throne that many think should be toppled. In the wake of reports of the merger, Germany’s justice minister Katarina Barley’s take was that it “raises major questions about antitrust and data protection”.
After a year of trust and security scandals, this might be a legal battle Facebook might just win, but a public relations issue from which the tech giant may never fully recover.