Facebook to merge WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger

A spokesperson from social media giant Facebook has announced that the platform plans to merge messaging platforms WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger, according to a New York Times report.

The spokesperson claimed that the merger would deliver a “fast, simple, reliable and private” messaging platform intended to create “the best messaging experiences” for users. Although the apps are expected to remain distinct from one another, the core infrastructure will be combined into one, according to experts. The merger is expected to take place early next year even though no official details have been released.

Photo Courtesy: The Independent UK

Facebook acquired photo-sharing platform Instagram for approximately $1 billion (£761 million) in 2012, before taking over the messaging app WhatsApp in 2014 for an estimated $19.3 billion (£14.7bn).

The original founders of the app have since left Facebook, but the apps themselves have experienced dynamic growth in popularity. The decision to merge these platforms is contradictory to statements by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who stated the platforms would remain separate from Facebook.

One of the main concerns of the said merger is the privacy of users’ data. Given Facebook’s past and ongoing efforts to prove innocence against allegations of privacy breach, this merger can’t but attract scrutiny and arched eyebrows. It will be a technically challenging task to merge privacy configurations and data from three separate platforms.

The process might get shady given lack of user awareness regarding privacy issues. There is still a year’s time between now and the merger actually happening. Facebook needs to be absolutely crystal clear about the progress of their proceedings to retain user trust. As of now, we’re not quite sure how to feel about this and can only nervously await further proceedings.  

Facebook going back to its roots with new dating feature

Facebook has been in the news quite a bit recently. From the Cambridge Analytica scandal to the viral memes of founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg drinking water at his appearance before Congress, it almost feels like the company has been constantly stealing headlines for weeks now. Amidst all of this controversy, Facebook had their F8 conference, an annual conference for developers of the company, on the first of May. Zuckerberg announced during the keynote speech that the company will introduce a new dating feature for Facebook, commenting that “200 million people listed as single, so clearly there’s something to do here.” He added, “If we’re focused on helping people build meaningful relationships, then this is perhaps the most meaningful of all.”

For anyone following the history of the company, this shouldn’t come as a shock. In fact, many insiders joke that the only reason Facebook was created was for Mark Zuckerberg to rank ladies according to their looks. Jokes aside, that really was how the website started, as a means of reaching ladies and dating. Facebook would later distance themselves from this and become more family friendly, but in doing so it seems they have turned a full 360 degrees and come back to their original proposition. This time, however, Facebook is determined to make it a more permanent feature. They want people to find their lifelong partners on the website, in contrast to what used to be a way to find the prettiest girls in its earliest incarnations.

The results of the announcement were fairly easy to predict as well. The price of stock of Match, a prominent dating company and its parent IAC both went down. The prices plummeted by 22 and 18 percent respectively. The new feature will probably be free, which would challenge Match very well, as Tinder- the only real viable option in the dating scene, has gotten more and more premium features in the last couple of years.

The IAC CEO, Joey Lavin, when asked about this new development, simply brought up Facebook’s controversies in a fun fashion, saying the product could be “great for US/Russia relationships”. He also said that “Come on in. The water is warm”, hinting that his company already has a sizable chunk of that market. The CEO of Match, Mandy Ginsberg, shared similar confident sentiments. She also proceeded to poke fun at the expense of the massive corporation. She said in a statement, “We’re surprised at the timing given the amount of personal and sensitive data that comes with this territory.” It’s clear at this point that both the CEOs of Match and its parent IAC are trying their hardest to bring up that controversy and to make sure people cannot trust Facebook with their data, but the bottom line is that because of Facebook’s new announcement they have lost tons of money.

Many analysts also speculate this feature to be a way to divert public attention away from the Cambridge Analytica scandal and towards something they can actually market. For months now, Facebook has been trying to put out the raging barn fire that it has been this controversy and the associated data leaks. The CEO, Zuckerberg, has even been brought to trial for this reason. He however, stated at F8 that his company will “keep building [new features] even while we focus on keeping people safe.”

The dating feature comes with its very own texting feature, where only texts can be sent, not images. It will also be separate from the Messenger or WhatsApp apps. As said by Chris Cox, the chief product officer, this new feature is said to mirror real life as it will feature links to events and groups on the website, allowing users to connect through a shared interest, hobby, profession or any combination of the three.

All of this sounds fantastic, especially as Tinder has been useless for non-premium users for a while now. This brings them real competition, something everyone likes to have as consumers in the market. Tinder’s near monopoly being shattered would do wonders for single people worldwide who do not want to pay a premium. That being said, this announcement also means that Facebook will be handling more sensitive data than they ever have, and they do not have a very good record of handling sensitive data. In the coming months we will see if Facebook can put our doubts to rest, or if we see another scandal in the same proportions as (or greater than) Cambridge Analytica.

Zuckerberg and Facebook’s day of reckoning?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg found himself in the proverbial hot seat as he was grilled for a marathon 5 hour long hearing in front of the US Congress, as senators from the commerce and judiciary committees pelted questions regarding privacy, data mining, fake news, regulations and the social media giant’s involvement in the recent scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, a British data firm with shady ties to the Russians.

If it sounds like a post-modernist spy film with slightly boring-action-yet-interesting-subplots, you’d be absolutely right.

If this image vaguely reminds you of Superman’s appearance in front of Congress in Dawn of Justice…you’re not alone. Minus the cape and the explody bits, of course.

On April 10th, Zuckerberg traded in his signature plan grey collarless shirt for a sharp suit, muted white shirt and a tie in the Facebook-shade-of-blue and appeared before a Congressional committee that seemed, over the course of the evening, appeared to be both blissfully unaware of the way Facebook collects and monetizes data as well as seemingly ready to ask the tough questions…that no one is really asking. With less than five minutes allotted to each member of the committee, the line of questioning that the 33 year old billionaire had to face barely scratched the surface of the overall problem, with barely any follow up questions – quite unlike the previous instances of the tech world clashing with government, like Bill Gates had to face in 1998.

Similar to the Gates hearing, however, Mark Zuckerberg was asked whether Facebook was a monopoly and actively engaging in anti-competitive practices, which the CEO took lightly and answered with “It doesn’t feel like it”. The floor made it somewhat clear that the committee members were concerned about the seemingly limitless power Facebook currently holds.

Some media outlets called the whole thing a “sham”, while others understood the need for such theatrics in calming an excited population and stock market – while Facebook’s shares were steadily falling before the hearing, the numbers stabilized and even climbed 4.5% afterwards. And while some of the questions might be seemingly hard-hitting on the surface, Zuckerberg’s responses were apologetic – a virulent mix of “I’m sorry”s and “We’re working on it”s.

Public apologies for data misuse – becoming quite common for Facebook and its young CEO.

In Facebook’s 14 years of existence, this seems to have become a cycle that they’ve nearly perfected – Facebook takes user data and either sells/distributes to third party advertisers and/or researchers/data miners, invariably gets caught, goes on a media apology tour and the world moves on with some good humoured meme and vine sharing. But now a line in the sand has been drawn – do not mess with the democratic process of elections. Cambridge Analytica’s data mining of nearly 87 million Facebook users with the help of researcher Aleksandr Kogan and alleged ties to the Donald Trump presidential campaign was an eye-opener – that social media is now plays an important enough role in the lives of people, enough to affect election results and who you’re likely to vote for.

So when the public audience at the hearing erupts into laughter following Zuckerberg’s “no” to a question fielded by Democrat Dick Durbin – “Would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?” – it’s enough to make most people’s skin crawl. If there’s anything to take away from the hearing, it’s that people might care less about their data privacy than Facebook does.

Democrat Richard Blumenthal put the Facebook CEO under some amount of stress when he said, “We’ve seen the apology tours before. You have refused to acknowledge even an ethical violation to report this violation of the FTC consent decree. My reservation about your testimony today is that I don’t see how you can change your business model unless there are specific rules of the road. Your business model is to maximise profit over privacy.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is surrounded by members of the media as he arrives to testify before a Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees joint hearing regarding the company’s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis.

Another senator pointed out how Zuckerberg’s second in command, Sheryl Sandberg, went on morning TV and talked about getting users to pay if they wanted to opt out of having their data shared with third parties, to which he gave yet another vague answer. Much of the hearing saw Zuckerberg deflecting questions and trying to run out the clock, while driving home Facebook’s mission statement of “connecting people and letting ideas foster”.

Republican Ted Cruz picked up on that and gave Zuckerberg an equally hard time about the “liberal bias” of Facebook’s team of content moderators, who are seemingly more prone to taking down conservative viewpoints like those of Christian evangelists than regulating liberals and their Planned Parenthood pages. To which Zuckerberg replied “Palo Alto is one of the most liberal places on earth”…forgetting, for a moment perhaps, that Facebook is as global an entity as any.

But liberal biases and vague answers aside, the young CEO was forced to clear out the Cambridge Analytica issue as much as he could. Zuckerberg initially claimed there was no scope for blocking Cambridge Analytica from being on Facebook in 2015 when their activities were first brought to light, as CA maintained no pages and was neither a developer nor an advertiser.

However, after taking some time to consult his team, Zuckerberg clarified:  “[From] what my understanding was … they were not on the platform, [they] were not an app developer or advertiser. When I went back and met with my team afterwards, they let me know that Cambridge Analytica actually did start as an advertiser later in 2015. So we could have in theory banned them then. We made a mistake by not doing so. But I just wanted to make sure that I updated that because I … I … I misspoke, or got that wrong earlier.”

Cambridge Analytica’s data mining of nearly 87 million Facebook users with the help of researcher Aleksandr Kogan and alleged ties to the Donald Trump presidential campaign was an eye-opener – that social media is now plays an important enough role in the lives of people, enough to affect election results and who you’re likely to vote for.

Senator Leahy took a line of questioning that struck close to home for South Asia: “… six months ago, I asked your general counsel about Facebook’s role as a breeding ground for hate speech against Rohingya refugees. Recently, U.N. investigators blamed Facebook for playing a role in inciting possible genocide in Myanmar. And there has been genocide there. You say you use A.I. to find this. This is the type of content I’m referring to. It calls for the death of a Muslim journalist. Now, that threat went straight through your detection systems, it spread very quickly, and then it took attempt after attempt after attempt, and the involvement of civil society groups, to get you to remove it.”

In response, Zuckerberg laid out a plan – “There are three specific things that we’re doing… hiring dozens of Burmese-language content reviewers, because hate speech is very language-specific…working with civil society in Myanmar to identify specific hate figures so we can take down their accounts…standing up a product team to do specific product changes in Myanmar and other countries that may have similar issues in the future to prevent this from happening.”

With the initial hearing ending on a note of regret and taking responsibility on Facebook’s part and Zuckerberg promising more involvement in finding the “right kind of regulation” that could work for what is essentially a social media monopoly, one thing is clear – there is a long way to go for Facebook in developing a mature, effective and trustworthy system that balances profitability with privacy, freedom of expression and accountability, and nearly everything in-between. Considering the role social media has begun to play in our daily lives, it’s vital that tech companies like Facebook get their act together and bridge the gaping chasms that they have unintentionally created.