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- Business Insider spoke to the head of Facebook Messenger, Stan Chudnovsky, about the company’s big "privacy" and "interoperability" plans.
- Facebook considered letting its messaging apps communicate with non-Facebook apps, he said.
- The company’s plan to make its messaging apps end-to-end encrypted won’t affect ad-targeting at all.
- Interoperability between Messenger and Instagram may come first, with WhatsApp users potentially having to wait to join the party.
- Messenger’s "M Suggestions" AI assistant will likely continue to exist after the changes, and there are no plans to bring some of Messenger’s key features to Instagram.
- Visit BusinessInsider.com for more stories.
Two huge changes are coming to Facebook’s family of messaging apps.
The Silicon Valley social networking giant is planning to add a kind of "interoperability" between its Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram apps, allowing users of any one of the apps to send messages directly to users on any of the others.
And it is adding end-to-end encryption to private messages in both Messenger and Instagram, adding an additional level of security to the apps that nobody — including law enforcement and Facebook itself — can intercept and read users’ messages. Importantly, WhatsApp is already encrypted.
These changes have been in the works for months, and it could take years before they see the light of day. But at Facebook’s big F8 conference last week, Business Insider sat down with Stan Chudnovsky, the head of Messenger, to ask key questions about how the changes may work in practice.
There’s still a huge amount of uncertainty over everything from content moderation to the actual timeline of the efforts — but he also shed light on how it will impact existing Facebook initiatives and what will and won’t be part of the changes.
Interoperability may come to Messenger and Instagram before WhatsApp
Messenger and Instagram users might be able to message each other before WhatsApp users can join the party.
It sounds like the company is currently considering having interoperability come to Messenger and Instagram first, with WhatsApp being added at a later date.
"We would probably try to make it possible to go from Messenger to Instagram and back first, and then send to WhatsApp second, but we haven’t decided," Chudnovsky said.
Figuring out the roll-out plan is difficult in part because it’s difficult to get everybody on the same version of each app, the exec said.
"Imagine if you are releasing an end-to-end encrypted app," he said. "That means some people you can send a message that’s encrypted, but some people haven’t really upgraded their client yet, so that means it goes unencrypted because they don’t have encryption capabilities, and things like that. So all of those things need to be under consideration."
Facebook ‘thought about’ interoperability with non-Facebook messaging apps
Facebook considered the possibility of interoperability with non-Facebook-owned messaging apps by creating or adopting an open messaging standard — but ultimately decided not to due to the complexity of the existing task ahead of them.
"Yes, we thought about it, we’re just not planning to do that right now," Chudnovsky said. "Because what we are trying to do is a little complex, so we are trying not to over-complexify it beyond the level at which it is right now."
Messenger supports the SMS texting standard on Android devices, which he pointed to as a way to use Facebook apps to communicate with users on non-Facebook messaging apps.
"If anyone wants to interoperate with people they can do it through SMS. It’s not the newest standard but it’s good enough to start on. Later on we can do other stuff," Chudnovsky said.
It’s not clear how content moderation will work yet.
End-to-end encryption poses huge challenges to policing malicious content on online platforms, as exemplified by a wave of politically motivated fake news that spread on WhatsApp in Brazil amid the country’s presidential elections.
Chudnovksy said the company doesn’t yet have a clear answer to how this will be addressed ("we have some theories"), but that it will consult with the relevant groups, and likely follow a similar path to WhatsApp, relying heavily on reports from users to identify offending content.
"We are building it very differently from the way we were generally building things [in the past] which is we would have built it, and launched it, and dealt with the consequences after," he said.
"That’s how we would have done it before, and the whole point of why we are not capable of providing any timelines of when the whole thing is coming together [is] because we probably will spend a year consulting with everybody, and the whole answer there will be: How do we that? Here is the trade-offs, here is the options, and how do we do that? So, I don’t know the answer," he said.
Facebook says its ‘pivot to privacy’ won’t affect its ad-targeting capabilities.
Facebook is framing the changes as a grand shift to privacy — but it won’t actually affect the amount of data the company collects on its users, and it won’t affect its ability to target them with ads.
"I don’t think it’s going to affect it in any way, shape, or form," Chudnovsky said. "It’s because [for] people-to-people messages we never used the content for anything already. So the way I think about it, Messenger was already private, it just wasn’t end-to-end encrypted."
And his message to advertisers is the same: "They just need to internalize what I just told you … obviously this is a question everyone is asking. We’re giving people the same answer."
There’s still no clear timeline on when the changes will roll out.
A spokesperson confirmed that there’s still no definitive timeline on when users should expect to see the changes come into affect — but that it will take years rather than months.
This spokesperson pointed to a quote from Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote at F8: "Over the next few years, we’re going to rebuild more of our services around these ideas. There are a lot of open questions and real tradeoffs on important social issues. We’re committed to working openly and consulting with experts, governments and the public as we go."
Facebook’s AI assistant will likely continue to exist.
M Suggestions is an AI-powered bot that lives inside Messenger and provides suggestions to users during their chats, from language translations to attaching GIFs and scheduling events.
It hasn’t been clear how going end-to-end encrypted will affect these efforts, but it sounds like the tentative plan is to continue to operate it by running it on the client side.
"That’s something we’ll have to decide as well, so right now the plan of record is: Yes, it’s going to exist," Chudnovsky said when asked about its future. "But this is something that clearly also goes into the bigger question around privacy and protection and security on the client side, so this is something we [will] definitely going to be talking about."
There aren’t plans to bring significant new Messenger-style developer functionality to Instagram DMs.
Messenger has leaned hard into building new functionality in recent years, opening up the platform to developers and advertisers to build bots and the like. There aren’t currently plans to do similar on Instagram DMs as part of the interoperability efforts.
Asked about a potential expansion, Chudnovsky said: "Not as part of this roll-out. We’re just going to try and make it work for people, and continue to focus the developer ecosystem on Messenger itself … we are not trying to think of more developer access to the Instagram APIs."
Interoperability also won’t necessarily mean that you can use new Messenger features like co-watching — that is, watching videos simultaneously with your friends in a group chat — on Facebook’s other apps. There’s not plans to add to Instagram as part of the efforts: "In terms of when it goes to Instagram or not, that’s up to the Instagram team to decide if they want it or not."
Encryption will not be optional.
There will be no option to opt out of end-to-end encryption, Chudnovsky said.
Messenger’s new Friends tab won’t come to Messenger Lite.
Messenger is planning a new Friends tab in the app, where content from users’ closest friends like stories will appear. But this new feature won’t appear won’t appear in Messenger Lite, Facebook’s lightweight messaging app for users with lower-power devices and slower internet connections.
"There is lightweight messaging in Lite, but if you want a full-fledged Messenger and full-fledged messaging capabilities and all the richness of it, you have to go into the [Messenger] app,"he said. "So if you just want a rudimentary send-a-message-and-so-forth, you can do it from Lite."
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