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Facebook wants to integrate all its messaging services. How will that work?

We hope analysts will ask about it on Facebook’s Q4 earnings call.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg looking at his cellphone.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Facebook is planning to integrate all of its messaging services, according to a New York Times report, a move that would allow users from each of its standalone messaging apps — Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger — to chat with one another.

It’s an interesting plan. Not only would it more tightly integrate Facebook’s services for potential business benefits, but it would create what would likely be the largest single messaging network in the world. The three services combined have more than 4 billion user accounts.

It could also raise some interesting antitrust issues.

So, what is the company’s strategy here?

We may find out on Wednesday when Facebook reports its Q4 earnings and CEO Mark Zuckerberg takes questions from analysts. The earnings call will certainly focus on Facebook’s business and its slowing user growth, but the timing offers outsiders a chance to ask Zuckerberg what his plans are for the messaging integration. Here are a few questions we’d love answered.

What are the regulatory implications?

There are already a lot of people who think Facebook is too big, and it’s hard to blame them. Facebook operates four different mobile apps, all of which have to do with communication. Each one has more than a billion users. Facebook has slowly been pulling those apps together — it uses the same ad infrastructure for Facebook, Messenger, and Instagram, for example — but connecting all of the messaging services would create a large ecosystem that would be entirely in Facebook’s control. It seems possible, at least, that combining them more tightly on the infrastructure level could make it much harder to pull them apart again down the road.

Regulators are taking notice. Democratic congressman Ro Khanna tweeted last week that Facebook’s acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram “clearly seem like horizontal mergers that should have triggered antitrust scrutiny.”

Makan Delrahim, assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice’s antitrust division, acknowledged Facebook’s plans at a policy conference on Tuesday. “Consolidation within the company itself, it doesn’t trigger any merger review laws,” he said. “To the extent that somehow integrating the platforms might increase certain levels of market power that could cause anti-competitive harm, [that] would be an area for antitrust enforcers to look at.” Delrahim acknowledged that there is still too much unknown at this point, but added: “We’ll watch it with interest.”

Will this help Facebook turn messaging into a business?

Despite owning both Messenger and WhatsApp — each with more than 1.5 billion users — Facebook makes little money from either service. That’s because no one outside of China’s WeChat (we think) has figured out a really successful way to make money from private messaging. Facebook has started putting ads inside people’s Messenger inboxes and has discussed plans to charge small businesses to use WhatsApp for what sounds like email marketing. But Facebook still hasn’t nailed the business of messaging, and it would be good to know if connecting these different services would help Facebook actually do that.

What are the privacy and safety implications?

Facebook’s plan seems to pose serious privacy issues for users, as well as some security risks related to encryption.

The privacy element is simple: How much information does Facebook need to have about who owns an account in order to connect them with others using a different service? WhatsApp, for example, only requires a user’s phone number. You can sign up for Instagram under a pseudonym. Will that still work for cross-platform messaging? Or will users have to sacrifice some degree of privacy in order to connect with people on other services? We probably won’t know for some time, but it’s worth asking.

The other part of the plan, according to the Times, is to encrypt all of these messaging services, which would mean Facebook won’t have access to the contents of the messages. Facebook already does this on WhatsApp, and to some extent on Messenger. Encrypting messages is great for user privacy, but it also makes it hard to stop people from using those services for malicious purposes. Facebook has had a tough time fighting fake news on WhatsApp, for example, because unlike fake news posts on Facebook, the company can’t always see what’s going viral. Adding more encrypted messaging to the mix could exacerbate that problem if there isn’t a plan in place.

It seems unlikely that we’ll learn answers to all of those questions on Wednesday. But hey — it never hurts to ask.

Facebook will report Q4 earnings after the stock market closes Wednesday, January 30.

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