Facebook’s antitrust lawsuit: What the giant would look like without Instagram, WhatsApp

December 10, 2020, 1:06 PM UTC

Facebook was slapped with a big antitrust lawsuit on Wednesday detailing the company’s aggressive behavior that squashed competition.

The Federal Trade Commission and 46 states say that for years the company engaged in anticompetitive behaviors to obtain and retain monopoly power, according to the lawsuit filed in a federal court on Wednesday. Facebook allegedly tried to neutralize potential future threats when it snapped up Instagram and WhatsApp and failed to buy Twitter and Snapchat, the lawsuit claims. The company, not surprisingly, pushed back hard and said it violated no laws.

Included in the lawsuit’s remedies is a call to break up Facebook. While analysts think anything is possible, they suspect that Facebook will more likely be forced to change some its behaviors rather than divest Instagram and WhatsApp (and Fortune’s Jeff John Roberts agrees) .

Ron Josey, an analyst at investment banking firm JMP Securities, says a forced divestiture would set an “interesting” precedent for other Big Tech companies. And Brent Thill, an analyst at investment banking firm Jefferies, called the lawsuit a “witch hunt.”

“It’s going to be a giant stink fest on the sidelines,” Thill said. “The game is going to go on, and nothing is going to change.”

But for argument sake, let’s say antitrust regulators succeed in their push for a breakup. What would Facebook look like without Instagram and WhatsApp?

“What you’re left with is a business that has 2.7 billion monthly active users and 1.8 billion daily active users,” Josey said. “So it’s not small.”

But losing Instagram would mean losing the engine responsible for most of Facebook’s recent growth in both users and revenue. Digital marketing research firm eMarketer estimates that Instagram will generate $22.5 billion in revenue in 2020, a year-over-year increase of 38%. By comparison, Facebook’s core app is expected to grow 22% to $33.4 billion this year, according to eMarketer.

And analysts suspect that Instagram is likely responsible for a large portion of the monthly active users on Facebook’s family of apps, which in the third quarter grew by 14% year-over-year (monthly active users on Facebook’s main app only grew by 12%).

“There’s no question Instagram is a massive engine” for the company, Thill said.

Losing WhatsApp is a little less of a concern for Facebook, Josey said, as the service is still in its early days of figuring out how to make money. But WhatsApp does represent another massive set of users—more than 2 billion worldwide. The service has also been beefing up its e-commerce offerings, most recently adding the ability for people to fill a digital cart and send the order to a participating business.

Bottom line: Facebook would be fine, but it would lose its shiny toys that help it grow.

Danielle Abril


COVID misinformation. While we’re on the topic of Facebook, the social network removed at least nine pages that were pushing misinformation about the coronavirus, the flu vaccine, and other health topics to their millions of followers, according to The Washington Post. Facebook made the move following a flag from researchers at the public policy think tank German Marshall Fund

Ethical dilemma. Google plans to investigate the ousting of one of its top A.I. researchers, Timnit Gebru, according to Axios. Last week, Gebru said she was fired for criticizing the company for its failure to commit to diversity. Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet, sent out an internal memo on Wednesday apologizing for how the company handled Gebru and announcing the investigation. 

Political policy changes. Google and YouTube both announced new policies related to political content on the services. Google plans to lift its political ad ban on Thursday, according to several media reports. The company implemented the ban on Nov. 3, after which it paused more than 5 million political ads. Meanwhile, YouTube is cracking down on videos, uploaded Wednesday and beyond, that claim widespread fraud or errors impacted the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election. Better late than never!   

Play nice, gamers. Twitch, the Amazon-owned streaming service popular among gamers, announced new rules for hateful conduct and sexual harassment on Wednesday. Users won’t be allowed to repeatedly comment on a person’s perceived attractiveness if it is unwelcome, for example. They also can’t make lewd or explicit comments about a person’s sexuality or physical appearance nor send unsolicited links to nudes. Attacks on people based on their caste, color, and immigration status will no longer be allowed. And Twitch prohibited the display of the Confederate flag. Changes will take effect Jan. 22.

Big Brother was watching. Apple and Google are banning data broker X-Mode Social after learning that the company provided data of unsuspecting app users to U.S. government contractors. The companies notified app developers about the ban and told them they have to remove X-Mode’s data tracking software from their apps or risk being banned themselves. 

Things that go boom. Elon Musk had warned there was only a one-in-three chance that everything would go as planned in the highest flight test yet of SpaceX's shiny Starship rocket prototype. The rocket successfully took off and flew to a height of eight miles. But the landing was a RUD, or "rapid unscheduled disassembly,” Musk noted in a Tweet. That's aeronautics talk for a fiery crash.


Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Harvard professor Marco Iansiti penned an opinion piece for Wired on Wednesday in which they suggest the tech industry needs to unite around a common cause: Democratizing tech tools and knowledge for “citizen developers,” or innovators outside the tech industry. The authors go as far as to say the tech industry will have “failed” if companies are the only beneficiaries of tech at the end of the decade.

“Success in this moment of unprecedented turbulence will require us to think boldly and move beyond traditional approaches. The current crisis demands innovation across both public and private sectors, and across every geographic and social community. This calls not only for developing individual skills, but also for providing an architecture to ensure that the necessary tools, data, and technology are broadly accessible and made available across traditionally isolated groups and geographies. The importance of technology and innovation is hardly a new idea. But it is people’s widespread and intense use of tech and tools that is the crucial ingredient,” Nadella and Iansiti write.


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(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)


In case you missed the oddball news this week, I’d like to turn your attention to an unlikely pairing: KFC and Lifetime. Oh, and UberEats also is in on the affair.

Lifetime and KFC are promoting what they’re calling a “steamy” holiday 15-minute mini-movie called A Recipe For Seduction. The film, which premieres on Lifetime at noon E.T. on Sunday, stars Mario Lopez as Colonel Harland Sanders and comes complete with an exclusive offer from UberEats. KFC lovers who order at least $20 of food on the app will get six free extra crispy tenders Sunday through Saturday. 

The year 2020 is truly strange. But if you need a distraction from the chaos, Mario Lopez and some fried chicken isn’t too shabby, methinks.

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