Updated: December 11, 2020 6:45:37 pm
Facebook executives’ worst nightmare is upon them. The Federal Trade Commission has declared the social network an illegal monopoly, and said it should be broken up. On Wednesday, the FTC and more than 40 states called for the unwinding of the company’s Instagram and WhatsApp acquisitions, which have allowed it to achieve unprecedented power over global communication and culture.
Facebook protested, saying that these deals were sealed years ago, in 2012 and 2014. The acquisitions passed antitrust muster then, and Facebook argued the government doesn’t get to request a do-over now.
But behind the scenes, the company is likely to make a more nuanced argument: that these products are no longer distinct entities, and breaking them up, as exciting as it sounds, would be incredibly technically difficult. While the products are distinct to users, they share back-end resources for infrastructure (computer servers and networking), advertising, operations and more.
The integration of both Instagram and WhatsApp into the larger Facebook architecture happened quickly, even though Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg had assured the companies’ founders they would maintain relative independence. Right after Instagram entered Facebook headquarters in September 2012, the tiny photo-sharing app started relying on its parent for some basic grown-up company things, like spam filters, content moderation, legal help and translation of the app into other languages. It took Instagram’s technical team years to transfer all of its photos from Amazon cloud storage to Facebook’s data centers.
And while Instagram initially planned to build its own advertising products, starting in 2015, Zuckerberg pressured them to use the same ad-buying system as the main social network. Several Instagram products, such as IGTV and Shop, have also been built in a way that borrows code from Facebook products.
WhatsApp, too, has relied on Facebook for infrastructure that has supported its growth to 2 billion users and beyond. And WhatsApp is dependent on Facebook for content moderation. In fact, since the app’s messages are encrypted so not even the company can read them, bad actors are rooted out by artificially intelligent inferences, based on phone numbers connected to accounts on Facebook and Instagram.
The founders of Instagram and WhatsApp both left Facebook in 2018 in part because they found autonomy wasn’t possible at the company. Afterward, Facebook integrated the products even further—working on an ambitious technical project to merge the chat functions on WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger.
Instead of a group of distinct platforms, Zuckerberg has essentially created a massive network, with little distinction between an Instagram or WhatsApp user. He sees us all as users of Facebook, through whichever portal we prefer.
What that means is that a few months or years from now, we might not be looking at a breakup, but rather a long, painful negotiation between Facebook and the FTC about whether a breakup is even possible or reasonable. It is, of course, feasible to one day untangle the mega-network. But every day that the FTC deliberates on remedies for the alleged Facebook monopoly, Facebook engineers are working to weave the products together more tightly.
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