A lot of people have jumped on the Facebook-bashing bandwagon, from privacy advocates and security researchers to presidential candidates. Now one of its own cofounders has joined the party with a call to break up the social media giant in an opinion piece that ran Thursday.
“We are a nation with a tradition of reining in monopolies, no matter how well intentioned the leaders of these companies may be. Mark [Zuckerberg]’s power is unprecedented and un-American,” Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes wrote in the op-ed, which ran in The New York Times.
“It is time to break up Facebook,” he added.
Of course, the company does not agree.
A bit rankled, Facebook thrust Sir Nicholas William Peter Clegg, vice president of global affairs and communication, into the spotlight with an official statement: “Facebook accepts that with success comes accountability. But you don’t enforce accountability by calling for the breakup of a successful American company. Accountability of tech companies can only be achieved through the painstaking introduction of new rules for the Internet. That is exactly what [chief executive officer] Mark Zuckerberg has called for. Indeed, he is meeting government leaders this week to further that work.”
Clegg, a former deputy prime minister of the U.K., seems to be unaware that the U.S. has a history of taking anti-monopolistic measures on corporate empires. One of the most notable examples is President Reagan’s breakup of AT&T, or “Ma Bell,” in the Eighties.
Hughes laid out his case for a similar approach, basing his argument on a disconcerting concentration of power.
“Mark [Zuckerberg]’s influence is staggering, far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government,” Hughes wrote. “He controls three core communications platforms — Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — that billions of people use every day.
“Mark alone can decide how to configure Facebook’s algorithms to determine what people see in their News Feeds, what privacy settings they can use and even which messages get delivered,” Hughes continued. “He sets the rules for how to distinguish violent and incendiary speech from the merely offensive, and he can choose to shut down a competitor by acquiring, blocking or copying it.”
Indeed, that’s one accusation that’s infamous in Silicon Valley. Take “Stories,” for instance. The feature has become a runaway hit for Facebook and Instagram, despite the fact that the “Stories” model originated with the Snapchat app. Snap Inc. had reportedly shot down multiple acquisition offers from Facebook, before the latter debuted its own take on the feature.
Not that Hughes intends to characterize the company or his fellow cofounder and chief executive officer as bad actors. Zuckerberg is “a good, kind person,” he wrote. But the ceo sacrificed security and civility for growth and clicks.
Hughes doesn’t let himself off the hook either. He faults himself and the early team for not thinking through how the News Feed’s algorithms can shape culture and wield political influence.
Some politicians, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), have called for a more sweeping breakup of big tech. If they have their way, the hammer will fall on Facebook, as well as Amazon, Apple and Google.
Others, like Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), skirt the line with more prescriptive measures.
According to Khanna, the Federal Trade Commission should not have approved Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp in 2012 in the first place. Now he wants to prevent such deals from happening in the future.
“I believe the way forward is to heavily scrutinize future mergers and to ensure no company has anti-competitive platform privileges,” he wrote in a public statement responding to Hughes’ opinion piece. “It is important America never surrender its lead in innovation to China’s Alibaba, Tencent or Baidu. But our focus on innovation must be balanced with a commitment to consumer privacy and promoting competition.”