When the CEOs of big companies buy smaller startups in a grab for their members, the executives know there’s a very important, very formulaic promise they must make: Nothing will change. Mark Zuckerberg trotted out this line when he acquired Instagram. (“We're committed to building and growing Instagram independently,” he assured.) And he parroted it again last week after paying $19 billion for WhatsApp. The messaging service will, Zuckerberg wrote, “continue to operate independently within Facebook.” The arrangement sounds nice, but the reality isn't so rosy. The question of whether or not these “independent” new Facebook satellites get to keep their logos or craft their next features pales in comparison to a larger issue that threatens their promised autonomy: the creep of Facebook’s core values into WhatsApp and Instagram’s DNA.
Facebook prides itself on its dedication to making the world “more open and connected,” which it optimistically predicts will improve friendships, fix commerce and spruce up our governments. This lofty crusade should make us even more dubious of Facebook’s promise not to rub off on the dominions in its empire. Facebook’s conviction that it’s on a humanitarian mission to “rewire” how we share and connect gives it a cover for proselytizing its ideas on personal information. Say it asks WhatsApp to start tracking our locations. Facebook certainly wouldn’t be trying to make money, it might protest. It’s just trying to do good. Facebook likes to argue we can always opt out if we don’t want to live by the rules of its carefully controlled, information-collecting universe. But it also knows from experience there isn’t too much it can do to us and have us leave -- whether it’s on Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp. Where our friends go is where we stay. And where our friends go is where Facebook, and its ideas, go too.
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