Facebook is working to allow cross-messaging between Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Each service will continue to operate as a standalone app, but Facebook is rebuilding the underlying infrastructure so that people who might use only one of Facebook’s properties could communicate with others within the company’s ecosystem.
All of the apps will support end-to-end encryption as well. Facebook has yet to provide a timeline for when this will happen.
“We want to build the best messaging experiences we can; and people want messaging to be fast, simple, reliable and private,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “We’re working on making more of our messaging products end-to-end encrypted and considering ways to make it easier to reach friends and family across networks. As you would expect, there is a lot of discussion and debate as we begin the long process of figuring out all the details of how this will work.”
By allowing these messaging apps to speak to one another across platforms, Facebook is no doubt hoping that it will keep its users more engaged and get them to use this merged system as their primary messaging service. By doing so, the company could also tout higher user engagement to advertisers, bumping up its advertising arm at a time when growth has slowed down.
Facebook has the most users of any other social media platform, and by combining its assets this way, the company could more directly compete with Apple’s iMessage and Google’s messaging services.
The move has the potential to redefine how billions of people use the apps to connect with one another while strengthening Facebook’s grip on users, raising antitrust, privacy and security questions. It also underscores how Mr. Zuckerberg is imposing his authority over units he once vowed to leave alone.
The plan — which is in the early stages, with a goal of completion by the end of this year or early 2020 — requires thousands of Facebook employees to reconfigure how WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger function at their most basic levels, said the people involved in the effort, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter is confidential.
Knitting together Facebook’s apps is a stark reversal of Mr. Zuckerberg’s previous stance toward WhatsApp and Instagram, which were independent companies that Facebook acquired. At the time of the acquisitions, Mr. Zuckerberg promised WhatsApp and Instagram plenty of autonomy from their new parent company. (Facebook Messenger is a homegrown service spun off the main Facebook app in 2014.)
The integration plan raises privacy questions because of how users’ data may be shared between services. WhatsApp currently requires only a phone number when new users sign up. By contrast, Facebook and Facebook Messenger ask users to provide their true identities. Matching Facebook and Instagram users to their WhatsApp handles could give pause to those who prefer to keep their use of each app separate.
Unifying the infrastructure for WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger is technically challenging. Unlike Facebook Messenger and Instagram, WhatsApp does not store messages and keeps minimal user data. It is the only one of the services to currently use end-to-end encryption by default.
Encrypted messaging has long been supported by privacy advocates who fear governments or hackers may gain access to people’s personal messages. But it will raise other issues for Facebook, particularly related to its ability to spot and curb the spread of illicit activity or disinformation.