Facebook cofounder: It’s time to break up company, gov oversight of social media needed

While there has been lots of talks about regulating Facebook and the tech industry as a whole, there’s so far been no real action. Now Facebook’s cofounder, Chris Hughes has published an opinion piece today in The New York Times, making the case for why Facebook needs to be broken up. But beyond that, he believes we need a new government agency to handle the growing tech regulation issues. Read on for the five main reasons Facebook’s cofounder believes the platform needs to be broken up.

The NYT editorial board has summed up the five main arguments Hughes has made for breaking up Facebook. First on the list is the incredible amount of power that Zuckerberg holds.

Mark Zuckerberg is really powerful. Like, cartoonishly, Bond-villain powerful.

Mr. Hughes describes the breathtaking power that Mark Zuckerberg has amassed through a combination of market dominance and lack of regulatory oversight.

“Mark’s influence is staggering, far beyond that of almost anyone else in the private sector or in government.” Mr. Hughes writes. Because Mr. Zuckerberg controls most of the company’s voting shares, Facebook’s board “works more like an advisory committee,” and he alone can decide how to configure the algorithms of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, determining who sees what. It’s a power that could be used to make or break rival companies or political candidates.

Second, Hughes notes disappointment in himself, Zuckerberg, and the other early Facebook team for not realizing how the News Feed algorithm would radically change the world, and how much power there would be in it.

Facebook’s founders had no idea of the power of what they were building.

The power of social media companies to rewire how humankind communicates was obvious. But the new tools had unintended consequences and soon started to alter society in alarming ways.

“I’m disappointed in myself and the early Facebook team for not thinking more about how the News Feed algorithm could change our culture, influence elections and empower nationalist leaders,” Mr. Hughes writes.

Next, Hughes brings up these monopolistic trends across all industries, not just tech, noting that the average size of public companies in the US has tripled in the last 20 years.

Facebook’s concentration of power and influence is part of a trend that extends beyond Silicon Valley.

Mr. Hughes sets the power of Facebook in the context of a broader movement toward monopolistic consolidation.

“In the past 20 years, more than 75 percent of American industries, from airlines to pharmaceuticals, have experienced increased concentration, and the average size of public companies has tripled,” Mr. Hughes writes. “The results are a decline in entrepreneurship, stalled productivity growth, and higher prices and fewer choices for consumers.”

Elaborating on Facebook’s monopoly, Hughes mentions that with no real competitor, Facebook isn’t checked by “conventional market forces” and so far the government allowed and even approved its growth and domination.

There are no alternatives to Facebook. That’s the problem.

No major social networking company has been founded since the fall of 2011. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, as many as one in four Facebook users in the United States deleted the app from their phones, at least temporarily. But they often migrated to Instagram or WhatsApp, not realizing that both companies were also owned by Facebook.

Mr. Hughes writes that Facebook’s ubiquity was a result of Mr. Zuckerberg’s drive to grow and the government’s unwillingness to do anything to stop it. “The company’s strategy was to beat every competitor in plain view, and regulators and the government tacitly — and at times explicitly — approved.”

Now, Facebook isn’t checked by conventional market forces. “This means that every time Facebook messes up, we repeat an exhausting pattern: first outrage, then disappointment and, finally, resignation,” Mr. Hughes writes.

Finally, Hughes believes that the government has all the tools it needs to regulate and breakup Facebook.

We have the tools to regulate Facebook but not the will. Yet.

The government has had an aversion stretching back decades to bringing antitrust cases. But the statues are still on the books and could be used to rein in even the biggest tech giants. “We already have the tools we need to check the domination of Facebook. We just seem to have forgotten about them,” Mr. Hughes writes.

In his full opinion piece, Hughes says that the next step should be creating a new government agency dedicated to tech regulation focused first on privacy and then tackling interoperability and defining guidelines for acceptable speech on social media:

Just breaking up Facebook is not enough. We need a new agency, empowered by Congress to regulate tech companies. Its first mandate should be to protect privacy.

The Europeans have made headway on privacy with the General Data Protection Regulation, a law that guarantees users a minimal level of protectionA landmark privacy bill in the United States should specify exactly what control Americans have over their digital information, require clearer disclosure to users and provide enough flexibility to the agency to exercise effective oversight over time. The agency should also be charged with guaranteeing basic interoperability across platforms.

Finally, the agency should create guidelines for acceptable speech on social media. This idea may seem un-American — we would never stand for a government agency censoring speech. But we already have limits on yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, child pornography, speech intended to provoke violence and false statements to manipulate stock prices. We will have to create similar standards that tech companies can use. These standards should of course be subject to the review of the courts, just as any other limits on speech are. But there is no constitutional right to harass others or live-stream violence.

Read the entire piece from Hughes here, and The NYT editorial board’s article here.


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