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  • MaryGrace Lerin

Meta Postpones Full Messaging Encryption Plan to 2023

While Meta continues to push forward with its full messaging integration plan, regardless of the fact that various governments and child safety organizations have warned against it, the company has now granted a brief respite in its progress, essentially allowing for more discussion about the project's potential negative consequences.

Facebook announced in 2019 that it would combine the messaging features of Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp, resulting in a unified inbox with all of your conversation threads from each app available on either platform. This will simplify cross-connection while also providing more options for brands to communicate with users using their preferred communications tool.

However, child safety experts raised concerns, and representatives from the UK, US, and Australian governments wrote an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg several months after the company's announcement, asking that the company dismiss its integration plan, which would inevitably include an expansion of end-to-end encryption to all of Facebook's – now Meta's – messaging choices.

Since WhatsApp conversations are already encrypted, the only way to incorporate them is to bring them up to the same degree of security. On one side, this is a good thing because it gives users more messaging privacy, but on the other end, it might also let criminals hide their activities because no one, not even Meta, can trace encrypted conversations. This effectively means that the company's encrypted communications network will be significantly expanded as a result.

Despite the criticism, Meta has kept making significant progress on the effort, but Meta's Global Head of Safety Antigone Davis said this weekend in an opinion article for The Telegraph in the UK that the company is now slowing down to ensure that 'we get this right.'

According to Davis:

“At Meta, we know people expect us to use the most secure technology available, which is why all of the personal messages you send on WhatsApp are already end-to-end encrypted and why we’re working to make it the default across the rest of our apps. As we do so, there’s an ongoing debate about how tech companies can continue to combat abuse and support the vital work of law enforcement if we can’t access your messages. We believe people shouldn’t have to choose between privacy and safety, which is why we are building strong safety measures into our plans and engaging with privacy and safety experts, civil society and governments to make sure we get this right.”

Meta is taking a "three-pronged strategy" to solve these concerns and maximize privacy, according to Davis. This technique entails using proactive detection technology to search for unusual patterns of activity in messaging, giving users more choice over how DM requests are filtered, and encouraging users to report suspicious behavior.

As per Davis, by implementing these measures, Meta will be able to meet law enforcement requirements while maintaining user privacy.

“As we roll out end-to-end encryption we will use a combination of non-encrypted data across our apps, account information and reports from users to keep them safe in a privacy-protected way while assisting public safety efforts. This kind of work already enables us to make vital reports to child safety authorities from WhatsApp.”

However, this will necessitate additional development, which will hinder progress. Meta had previously stated that the whole integration process would be in place by 2022, but Davis has now pushed that date back.

“We’re taking our time to get this right and we don’t plan to finish the global rollout of end-to-end encryption by default across all our messaging services until sometime in 2023. As a company that connects billions of people around the world and has built industry-leading technology, we’re determined to protect people’s private communications and keep people safe online.”

Although this may not be a major expansion, it may allow authorities more time to make their case to Meta and push for changes to the plan, which will ultimately see all messages in Meta's apps encrypted by default.

Nonetheless, Meta appears to be committed to its messaging merger approach. Another incentive could be that by fusing the company's communications backend, Meta will be able to argue that its platform as a whole cannot be torn up.

Several antitrust investigations are underway, with some proposing that Meta's past purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp be re-examined and, if found to have been made owing to anti-competitive actions, reversed back. If any of those judgements go against Meta, it may be forced to sell Instagram and/or WhatsApp — but if its messaging back-end is integrated, Meta may be able to argue that its components can't be broken up because they're now all part of one wider platform.

That might be another reason Meta is so eager to move forward, despite opposition to the idea - but perhaps with an extra year added to the process, more debate can be conducted, putting the change on hold.

The greatest counter-argument here comes from child safety advocates, who argue that greater message encryption will provide criminals more protection.

For example, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has claimed that any action by law enforcement to restrict access to messaging platforms will enhance the potential for these platforms to be used by perpetrator organizations.

According to Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC:

“Private messaging is at the front line of child sexual abuse, but the current debate around end-to-end encryption risks leaving children unprotected where there is most harm."

This is a huge topic of contention, but so is individual privacy and choice, and the issue highlights the balance and complexity in such argument, where, from an optimistic standpoint, this is a good thing, but bad actors will be able to exploit it for their own purposes.

As is the case in nearly every social media argument, the majority of systems and procedures have a good impact on interaction and engagement in general, but a few criminals and groups aiming to manipulate the system are able to gain some benefit from the same improvements.

The latter can be significantly more harmful, yet the former serves a larger audience. As a result, there are no simple responses in such situations.

In short, the message encryption discussion is a microcosm of many other algorithmic and systematic process debates - should you go with the change that will benefit the most people, or do you try to limit it, even if it reduces overall user experience, retention, and performance?

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