Chris Hughes, one of the co-founders of Facebook, recently argued in a New York Times op-ed that the company he helped launch should now be broken up, as the site — as well as its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg — has become too powerful.
Hughes particularly called for the resignation of Zuckerberg, his fellow co-founder, saying that his power was both “unprecedented” and even “un-American.” He compared Facebook’s current level of influence over both the public and private sector to that of the railroad and oil companies during the “Gilded Age” of the early 20th century. The power of Gilded Age monopolies eventually led to the creation of laws like the Sherman Antitrust Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court invoked in its 1911 order to break up Standard Oil.
“Mark [Zuckerberg]’s influence is staggering, far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government,” Hughes wrote. “We are a nation with a tradition of reining in monopolies, no matter how well intentioned the leaders of these companies may be.”
In the op-ed, Hughes explained that the power Zuckerberg held was in data-mining users’ personal information, and selling that information to advertisers in order to help them make hyper-targeted ads directed at specific consumer demographics. This has proven to be a particularly lucrative business model. Just in the third quarter of 2017, for example, Facebook made more than $8 billion in revenue. This is all despite Zuckerberg promising in 2009 that the company would never sell its users’ data.
In 2018, Facebook came under fire after British firm Cambridge Analytica developed an app that ended up capturing the personal data of more than 50 million Facebook users without their permission. Zuckerberg admitted wrongdoing in the scandal, but as of this writing, the only accountability he has faced is a fine of up to $5 billion. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) is leading the charge in pushing for further legal action against Facebook and its CEO.
As of this writing, no action has yet been taken to break up Facebook. However, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) has made the breaking up of big tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google a key platform of her 2020 presidential campaign. Warren’s plan would designate any tech company with more than $25 billion in revenue as “platform utilities,” then prohibit companies with that designation from owning both the utility and the users of that utility simultaneously.
“As these companies have grown larger and more powerful, they have used their resources and control over the way we use the Internet to squash small businesses and innovation, and substitute their own financial interests for the broader interests of the American people,” Warren stated. “To restore the balance of power in our democracy, to promote competition, and to ensure that the next generation of technology innovation is as vibrant as the last, it’s time to break up our biggest tech companies.”
For his part, Chris Hughes wants to see rigid new privacy protections in the U.S. like those recently passed in Europe, as well as a new agency to regulate tech companies specifically.
“The alternative is bleak,” Hughes wrote. “If we do not take action, Facebook’s monopoly will become even more entrenched. With much of the world’s personal communications in hand, it can mine that data for patterns and trends, giving it an advantage over competitors for decades to come.”
Tom Cahill is a contributor for Grit Post who covers political and economic news. He lives in Bend, Oregon. Send him an email at tom DOT v DOT cahill AT gmail DOT com.