Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes has called for the break-up of the social media behemoth and lamented the “staggering” and “unchecked” power of CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a lengthy and searing oped.
Hughes co-founded Facebook with Zuckerberg in a Harvard dorm room in 2004 and watched “in awe” as the company grew over the last 15 years — but said he now feels a “sense of anger and responsibility” about how all-powerful and out-of-control the social media giant has become.
Lashing out at the company, Hughes wrote in a piece published by the New York Times that Zuckerberg’s power and influence goes “far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government.”
“There is no precedent for [Zuckerberg’s] ability to monitor, organize and even censor the conversations of two billion people.”
Hughes berates Facebook over “sloppy privacy practices,” “violent rhetoric and fake news,” and the “unbounded drive to capture ever more of our time and attention.” It’s not that Zuckerberg is a bad person, he writes, but “he’s human” and his focus on growth “led him to sacrifice security and civility for clicks.”
Hughes also bemoans the fact that the powerful CEO controls three core communications platforms (Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp) and says that lack of competition, market or government regulation is a major problem. If a competitor crops up, Zuckerberg can simply choose to shut it down “by acquiring, blocking or copying it” in the manner it did with the Instagram and WhatsApp mergers.
The lack of competition means that “every time Facebook messes up, we repeat an exhausting pattern: first outrage, then disappointment and, finally, resignation.”
“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 also worries that Zuckerberg has “surrounded himself with a team that reinforces his beliefs instead of challenging them.” He believes that neither Facebook’s offer to appoint a “privacy czar” or the expected Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fine of $5 billion will be enough to rein in the company.
The answer and solution lies in more government regulation and subsequent market competition, Hughes says. But Facebook isn’t afraid of just “a few more rules,” so the action needs to be more dramatic, he suggests.
“The American government needs to do two things: break up Facebook’s monopoly and regulate the company to make it more accountable to the American people.”
That will involve separating Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram into three individual companies and banning future acquisitions “for several years.”
The FTC should never have permitted these mergers, but it’s “not too late to act.” There is “precedent for correcting bad decisions,” he says, pointing to 2009 when Whole Foods settled antitrust complaints by selling off the Wild Oats brand and stores it had acquired years earlier.
He notes that time is of the essence, however, as Facebook has been working quickly to integrate the three platforms, precisely in order to make splitting them up more difficult.
“Mark’s power is unprecedented and un-American. It is time to break up Facebook.”
Hughes also suggests the creation of a new government agency specifically to empower Congress to regulate tech companies and protect user privacy.
He says the agency should “create guidelines for acceptable speech on social media” while noting that the idea might seem “un-American” at first. The standards therefore should be “subject to the review of the courts” and would be similar to already accepted rules on speech like not shouting “fire” in a theater, provoking violence or making false statements to manipulate stock prices.
Ultimately, he says, an aggressive case taken now against Facebook would persuade other behemoths like Google and Amazon to “think twice” about stifling competition out of fear that “they could be next.”
Reactions to Hughes’ op-ed on social media have been mixed, so far. Christopher Wylie, who blew the whistle on Facebook’s damaging Cambridge Analytica scandal, tweeted the op-ed in agreement, saying it was time to “break up Facebook like they broke up democracy.”
Many others reacted positively, too, saying the time is ripe to start regulating big tech — but some weren’t delighted by the prospect of regulations on speech.