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Meet the newest walled garden

Recently, Mark Zuckerberg posted a lengthy note outlining Facebook’s vision to integrate its three messaging services – WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram (through its Direct messaging functionality) – into one privacy and security oriented platform. The post positioned Facebook’s future around individual and small group conversations, rather than the “public forum” style communications through Facebook’s newsfeed platform. Initial coverage of the move, largely critical, has focused on the privacy and security aspects of this integrated platform, the history of broken promises on privacy and the changes that would be needed for Facebook’s business model to realize the goal. However, there’s a yet darker side to the proposal, one mostly lost in the post and coverage so far: Facebook is taking one step further to make its family of services into the newest walled garden, at the expense of openness and the broader digital economy.

Here’s the part of the post that highlights the evolution in progress:

Sounds good on its face, right? Except, what Facebook is proposing isn’t interoperability as most use that term. It’s more like intraoperability – making sure the various messaging services in Facebook’s own walled garden all can communicate with each other, not with other businesses and services. In the context of this post, it seems clear that Facebook will intentionally box out other companies, apps, and networks in the course of this consolidation. Rather than creating the next digital platform to take the entire internet economy forward, encouraging downstream innovation, investment, and growth, Facebook is closing out its competitors and citing privacy and security considerations as its rationale.

This is not an isolated incident – it’s a trend. For example, on August 1, 2018, Facebook shut off the “publish_actions” feature in one of its core APIs. This change gutted the practical ability of independent companies and developers to interoperate with Facebook’s services. Some services were forced to disconnect Facebook profiles or stop interconnecting with Facebook entirely. Facebook subsequently changed a long-standing platform policy that had prohibited the use of their APIs to compete, but the damage was done, and the company’s restrictive practices continue.

We can see further evidence of the intent to create a silo under the guise of security in Zuckerberg’s note where he says: “Finally, it would create safety and spam vulnerabilities in an encrypted system to let people send messages from unknown apps where our safety and security systems couldn’t see the patterns of activity.” Security and spam are real problems, but interoperability doesn’t need to mean opening a system up to every incoming message from any service. APIs can be secured by tokens and protected by policies and legal systems.

Without doubt, Facebook needs to prioritize the privacy of its users. Shutting down overly permissive APIs, even at the cost of some amount of competition and interoperability, can be necessary for that purpose – as with the Cambridge Analytica incident. But there’s a difference between protecting users and building silos. And designing APIs that offer effective interoperability with strong privacy and security guarantees is a solvable problem.

The long-term challenge we need to be focused on with Facebook isn’t just whether we can trust the company with our privacy and security – it’s also whether they’re using privacy and security simply as a cover to get away with anticompetitive behavior.

How does this square with the very active conversations around competition and centralization in tech we’re witnessing around the world today? The German competition authority just issued a decision forcing Facebook to stop sharing data amongst its services. This feels like quite the discordant note for Facebook to be casting, even as the company is (presumably) thinking about how to comply with the German decision. Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission is actively pursuing an investigation into Facebook’s data practices. And regulators in the U.S., the European Union, India, Israel, and Australia are actively reviewing their antitrust and competition laws to ensure they can respond to the challenges posed by technology and data.

It’s hard to say whether integrating its messaging services will further entrench Facebook’s position, or make it harder to pursue the kinds of remedies directed by the Bundeskartellamt and being considered by politicians around the world. But it seems like Facebook is on a collision course towards finding out.

If Facebook believes that messaging as a platform offers incredible future innovation, the company has a choice. It could either seek to develop that potential within a silo, the way AT&T fostered innovation in telephones in the 1950s – or it could try the way the internet was built to work: offering real interoperability on reasonable terms so that others can innovate downstream.