Co-founder’s call to break up Facebook energizes its critics

A call to break up Facebook from one of the company’s co-founders is bringing new momentum to the movement targeting Silicon Valley’s giants.

Chris Hughes published an op-ed in The New York Times on Thursday arguing that the company that he helped build as a college student at Harvard had grown too large and unaccountable.

The article was a stunning rebuke from a former insider and made waves in the political world and across social media.

“I think that blew open the conversation in an incredibly meaningful way,” said Sarah Miller, the deputy director of the Open Markets Institute, which has helped push antitrust questions about tech companies to the forefront over the past year and a half.{mosads}

“It’s getting harder and harder to defend Facebook maintaining its monopoly power,” she added.

In the op-ed, Hughes said that he was worried about the amount of power Facebook had amassed over the world’s communications and how Mark Zuckerberg, his former roommate and co-founder, had complete control over the company.

“We are a nation with a tradition of reining in monopolies, no matter how well intentioned the leaders of these companies may be. Mark’s power is unprecedented and un-American,” Hughes wrote.

After the article ran Thursday morning, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), one of Facebook’s biggest critics in Congress, echoed the call for a breakup.

“Being big is not illegal. It’s the misuse of that bigness and market dominance such as Facebook has been doing by acquiring innovative companies before they can really reach maturity and also copying new technologies so as to stifle competition and innovation. That’s why I think the antitrust department of the Department of Justice needs to begin an investigation,” Blumenthal said during an interview with CNBC.

And 2020 contender Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has criticized corporate giants over their labor practices but has stayed relatively quiet on Silicon Valley’s market power, applauded Hughes for the column.

“We are living in an era of monopolies that dominate every aspect of our lives—including our government. It’s time to take that power back,” Sanders wrote in a tweet.

There’s a growing consensus among public interest and privacy groups about a need for antitrust action against the largest tech giants. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), another 2020 candidate, brought the idea into the political mainstream earlier this year with a detailed proposal to break up large platform companies through legislative and legal action.

Her plan specifically targets Facebook, Amazon and Google — companies that she believes have tilted the playing field to suppress any potential competition.

Hughes argues that regulators at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) were wrong to allow Facebook to grow as large as it has by approving its acquisitions of Instagram, a competitor, as well as the messaging service WhatsApp.

Proponents of breaking up Facebook believe that unwinding those mergers would be the ideal start and that they should never have been allowed in the first place.

The FTC earlier this year launched a new task force aimed at tech companies that would conduct reviews of past mergers, but officials have not identified any deals that would be scrutinized by the new team. The FTC is currently wrapping up a yearlong investigation into Facebook’s handling of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which could result in a fine as high as $5 billion.

For its part, Facebook responded to the Hughes op-ed by saying it would be wrong to punish the company for its success.

“Facebook accepts that with success comes accountability,” Nick Clegg, a former deputy prime minister of the U.K. and current Facebook vice president, said in a statement. “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 Mark Zuckerberg has called for.”

But even as the tide in Washington has turned against tech companies, the push to break up the biggest giants has yet to take root among some of Silicon Valley’s biggest critics.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who has spoken out extensively about big tech’s effect on consumers and competition, told The Hill, “My view is that a breakup of a company is a final resort, so I wouldn’t advocate for that until I’m sure we’ve exhausted everything.”

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who represents Silicon Valley, has similarly called for greater regulation and antitrust scrutiny of the sector but believes it’s inappropriate to push for a breakup.

“Look, what we don’t want is the only big tech companies to be Chinese — Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent — but what we do want is thoughtful regulation and thoughtful inquiries by the antitrust division and the FTC and make sure that these companies aren’t gobbling up new competitors, make sure that they’re not privileging their own products,” Khanna told The Hill.

Free market advocates are also taking issue with the idea of such a massive government intervention into the private sector.

Wayne Crews, the vice president of policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, says that if Facebook is failing its users, they will look for other options, opening the door for a potential competitor.

“I think a government breakup of a consumer’s voluntary use of a company’s services is an egregious intervention,” Crews told The Hill. “The premise is that this entity has too much power, yet here’s the federal government, which also has privacy issues of its own, is going to step in and make that kind of decree.”

Still, Miller of the Open Markets Institute sees a growing demand for the government to take a stand against the concentrated private power in Silicon Valley, and she’s hopeful that career and political officials at the FTC and Department of Justice will start to take notice.

“Whether you’re looking at specific court cases or what regulators choose to prioritize, that outside context and opinion will shape those positions in important ways.” she said. “[Facebook has] a pretty good operation when it comes to trying to influence the conversation, but they’re still losing the debate.”

Emily Birnbaum contributed.

Tags Bernie Sanders David Cicilline Elizabeth Warren Facebook Mark Zuckerberg Ro Khanna
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