In response to calls that Facebook be forced to divest itself of WhatsApp and Instagram, Mark Zuckerberg has instead made a strategic power grab: He intends to put Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger onto a unified technical infrastructure. The integrated apps are to be encrypted to protect users from hackers. But who’s going to protect users from Facebook?
Ideally, that would be the Federal Trade Commission, the agency charged with enforcing the antitrust laws and protecting consumers from unfair business practices. But the F.T.C. has looked the other way for far too long, failing to enforce its own 2011 consent decree under which Facebook was ordered to stop deceiving users about its privacy claims. The F.T.C. has also allowed Facebook to gobble up any company that could possibly compete against it, including Instagram and WhatsApp.
Not that blocking these acquisitions would have been easy for the agency under the current state of antitrust law. Courts require antitrust enforcers to prove that a merger will raise prices or reduce production of a particular product or service. But proving that prices will increase is nearly impossible in a digital world where consumers pay not with money but with their personal data and by viewing ads.