Ever since Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes voiced his controversial opinion in the New York Times about dismantling the billion-dollar social media conglomerate, the debate over big tech posing a threat to society has taken two broad sides.
One side of the aisle, including Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, considers breaking up the Mark Zuckerberg-owned company in light of its large-scale data breaches, and disproportionate influence over what people do, think, and buy. And then there are others who argue that having separately-traded companies instead of one is a terrible solution, even if the idea hits the bull’s eye in terms of identifying the problem.
Meanwhile, Zuckerberg who owns controlling stock in Facebook and its subsidiary platforms, WhatsApp and Instagram, has dismissed the calls for breaking his company up saying that the future of Facebook is privacy and an enormous budget was earmarked for safety of its users’ data this year.
“Accountability of tech companies can only be achieved through the painstaking introduction of new rules for the internet,” Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications, said in a statement on Thursday, May 9.
The social network also said that having Instagram and WhatsApp under Facebook helps them fight spam, election meddling, and crime. Responding to criticism over its strategy to acquire rivals and squash competition, Facebook says it has plenty of competition, pointing to YouTube, Snapchat, iMessage, and WeChat, among others.
What Hughes said
Hughes writes Facebook’s power is so great across the tools that billions of people use that it needs to be stopped. And Zuckerberg holds so much of that power that even the company’s board of directors can’t keep him accountable.
In his own words, “gargantuan companies” pose a grave “threat to democracy” and he is right. Not because he has been through the entire journey of Facebook’s ascent to monopoly, but also because Hughes foresaw its potential to hijack trends, thoughts, communication, and culture.
“I’m angry that his focus on growth led him to sacrifice security and civility for clicks,” Hughes wrote, referring to Facebook’s boss and major shareholder. “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.”
He recounts how Zuckerberg later came around to see the same, realising Facebook was both platform and publisher that was inevitably making crucial decisions about values, free speech, and prejudices.
But, he also acknowledges that monitoring election-related content, flagging hate speech and even deleting Facebook will not solve the problem as long as its subsidiary platforms continue to carry its flawed algorithms and administrative policies forward.
According to him, Zuckerberg has wielded unchecked power and more influence than anyone in the corporate sector or the government, saying it was “un-American” for power to “be concentrated in any one person.”
That seems to be the underlying thought for Hughes’s 6000-word piece.
Kicking Facbook’s nest and the problem with big tech
Many, however, argue that far from making a compelling case, Hughes has failed to call out the deliberate and premeditated damages Facebook has wreaked over the decade.
It’s been deceitful, promising its users for years that it takes privacy seriously when behind the scenes it’s done everything from tricking people into handing over their email-address books (and then storing them) to trading user information with third parties for targeted advertisement and influencing elections.
After acquiring WhatsApp and Instagram, Facebook’s dealings became more sinister with access to three databases worth of information. Following the feud with WhatsApp founders over decrypting messages sent over the platform, Facebook chose not to pursue it further. But that, in turn, has led, to another kind of polarisation in countries like India and Brazil, where right wing popular governments are spreading incendiary and fake news targeted to incite public sentiment against minorities, liberal, seculars, queer people and women.
Untraceable and unstoreable in WhatsApp’s case, information accessed by Facebook fueled the Cambridge Analytica scandal allowing Russia to interfere in elections worldwide. All its platforms have contributed massively to the spread of disinformation, hate speech and graphic violence.
None of these offences has been able to bring Facebook or its founder to justice. Regulation and arraignment having failed, Hughes’s proposition does seem like the only recourse left to stem the influence of big tech agglomerates like Facebook, Amazon and Google that information activists claim are beyond control of law or regulation.
A plan that cannot be executed?
At the same time, experts have argued that breaking up a big company into smaller entities would exacerbate several areas of the existing problem. Scrutiny would become more difficult, argues Business Insider; the world will have three companies to deal with instead of just one.
The lack of Facebook’s unifying influence and objectives would manifest itself as each company competing under the pressure of a growth-at-all-costs model, to grow.
And unless they are publicly traded, it still wouldn’t take away any of Zuckerberg’s powers who would remain the largest shareholder and the powerhouse behind all of them.
This highlights a separate issue which begins with an even more fundamental question.
Can Facebook be broken up at all?
Although Hughes cites the example of the reverse merger between Whole Foods and Wild Oats, industry experts claim that Zuckerberg owns 60% of Facebook’s voting shares which means the board cannot technically fire him, even if the directors are not on board with his ethics, strategies, and policies.
One way to break up Facebook would be for the federal government to file a lawsuit against the company, arguing it stifles competition. Another alternative would be for Congress to pass a law covering tech monopolies, to structurally separate its products.
Where we went wrong, and how to fix this
Meanwhile, there is another factor consolidating Zuckerberg’s power: Despite courting legal battles on several fronts, Facebook’s revenue continue to soar, as the number of users availing the company’s family of products. The stock, while not at its peak, is trading high, at nearly $190 a share.
Calls to break up Facebook aren’t new. Advocacy groups, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Freedom From Facebook, Color of Change and Common Sense Media, have previously asked the FTC to make Instagram, WhatsApp and even its Messenger service separate companies. But it is startling to hear one of the company’s co-founders call for such an extreme measure.
“After Mark’s congressional testimony last year, there should have been calls for him to truly reckon with his mistakes. Instead the legislators who questioned him were derided as too old and out of touch to understand how tech works. That’s the impression Mark wanted Americans to have, because it means little will change,” Hughes writes in the op-ed.
“The government must hold Mark accountable. For too long, lawmakers have marveled at Facebook’s explosive growth and overlooked their responsibility to ensure that Americans are protected and markets are competitive. Any day now, the Federal Trade Commission is expected to impose a $5 billion fine on the company, but that is not enough; nor is Facebook’s offer to appoint some kind of privacy czar,”Hughes adds.
Regulation can force Facebook back to its permissible limits as long as there’s criminal teeth to it. Slapping financial penalties on a company worth half a trillion dollars is not the commensurate legal response, especially when it has been designed accountability for crimes that can be equated with modern warfare.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.