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This article was published on December 12, 2019

FTC might put the brakes on Facebook’s plans to merge messaging apps

FTC might put the brakes on Facebook’s plans to merge messaging apps

A new report suggests the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) might file an injunction against Facebook, to keep it from integrating its messaging apps together. Doing so might make it harder to break up the company — which the FTC is reportedly considering.

The report comes from the Wall Street Journal, whose sources say that the FTC could block Facebook from pursuing further “interoperability,” which is its word for the ways in which its platforms interact.

The word is that Facebook is trying to integrate its messaging services — Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram — with each other so that users don’t have to switch between apps when interacting with friends. Zuckerberg first mentioned this ambition in March when he outlined his vision for the future:

[Today] if you want to message people on Facebook you have to use Messenger, on Instagram you have to use Direct, and on WhatsApp you have to use WhatsApp. We want to give people a choice so they can reach their friends across these networks from whichever app they prefer. We plan to start by making it possible for you to send messages to your contacts using any of our services, and then to extend that interoperability to SMS too.

The reason this seems so extra-thorny is that Facebook is currently the subject of an FTC investigation — specifically, an antitrust inquiry. Facebook’s facing similar inquiries from 47 states’ attorneys general, and that’s not even mentioning that it was hit with a $5 billion fine from the FTC just before this. I can’t say I sympathize, really, but the company is taking a bit of a battering.
It’s not a huge surprise the FTC is taking this step. Chairman Joseph Simon told the Financial Times in August that this integration specifically would muck up any possibility of breaking up the company should the FTC find its practices anticompetitive: “If they’re maintaining separate business structures and infrastructure, it’s much easier to have a divestiture in that circumstance than in where they’re completely enmeshed and all the eggs are scrambled.”

Should the FTC move to break the company up, it would mean undoing the acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp. During a House subcommittee in July, an antitrust academic said, “Facebook can’t name its competitors because they bought them,” meaning before they had the clout to really challenge Facebook’s model.

Your mileage may vary on how true it is that Facebook lacks real competition. I would say part of its insidiousness comes not from buying the competition, but from emulating it. Not to bring up an old bugbear of mine, but just ask Snapchat.

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