According to the New York Times, Facebook is set to merge data
from its three messaging services- Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp- into a
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.