One of Facebook’s own co-founders is now calling for the social media giant to be broken up.
But Chris Hughes’ op-ed in The New York Times Thursday goes beyond arguing that the government should split up the company or that regulators should create new guidelines for acceptable speech. Addressing his college roommate by name, Hughes portrays Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as a singular threat to America.
“Mark’s influence is staggering, far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government,” Hughes writes. “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, who liquidated his Facebook shares in 2012, compares the Silicon Valley giant to Gilded Age monopolies in the railroad, banking, and oil sectors. Antitrust regulation eventually curtailed those companies’ immense power. And Hughes calls for a similar push that would separate Instagram, WhatsApp, and the core Facebook app.
Facebook differs from its predecessors in that its scale is truly global and its products are nominally free. But Hughes writes that its core business model — hoovering up users’ data and hitting them with highly targeted advertising — imposes huge social costs.
Countries around the world, from the United States to India, are just beginning to grapple with the ways that highly lucrative model affects political speech and public attention. And ultimate control over the opaque set of processes that make it work rest in one man’s hands.
“The most problematic aspect of Facebook’s power is Mark’s unilateral control over speech”
“The most problematic aspect of Facebook’s power is Mark’s unilateral control over speech,” Hughes continues. “There is no precedent for his ability to monitor, organize and even censor the conversations of 2 billion people.”
Silicon Valley companies including Facebook have come under increasing scrutiny in Washington for privacy lapses and their role in spreading misinformation or extremist content. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has put out a proposal to break up Big Tech, a plan that Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez publicly endorsed in an interview with Politico on Thursday.
Hughes’ dystopian framing in the Times is a far cry from the social media giant’s campus origin tale. In addition to the breakup of the company, he calls for European-style privacy legislation and a new agency to oversee tech firms.
“The alternative is bleak,” Hughes writes. “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.”
Cover: Palo Alto, CA Septmber 1, 2005: Chris Hughes (left) and Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook, in their Palo Alto location. (John Green/San Mateo County Times)(Digital First Media Group/San Mateo County Times via Getty Images)