This morning, The Verge published excerpts from nearly two hours of leaked audio of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg talking about threats to the company. In a particularly notable excerpt, Zuckerberg says that an Elizabeth Warren presidency would be an “existential” threat to Facebook.
"You have someone like Elizabeth Warren who thinks that the right answer is to break up the companies ... if she gets elected president, then I would bet that we will have a legal challenge, and I would bet that we will win the legal challenge. And does that still suck for us? Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to have a major lawsuit against our own government. ... But look, at the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight."
Warren responded in a tweet accusing Facebook of benefiting from "a corrupt system," then adding later that "It's time to #BreakUpBigTech."
That the most powerful man in the world—a man who enjoys total control over a company that has more information on citizens than their governments, mediates the flow of information to most of them, and deploys user data be used to track and modify internet behavior or consumption patterns —is saying this should concern us. The rhetoric is even more worrisome when you consider his company will play a role in the electoral processes affecting whether Warren will be the Democratic Party nominee (or win the general, for that matter).
On its face, the idea that Warren’s plan to break up Facebook is an existential threat is laughable. If, for example, Facebook was forced to spin off WhatsApp or Instagram, it would still be the largest and most powerful social network. In a New York Times op-ed, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes goes further and makes the case that such a breakup would actually spur competition, innovation, improve national security, enrich shareholders of all three, and benefit users of the platforms.
In that light, then, it’s not so simple as to say that Zuckerberg is a billionaire who wants to preserve his bottom line, because Zuckerberg has a vision for what the internet looks like that is not inevitable or natural, it has to be coaxed into existence. Facebook must make money, yes, but Zuckerberg believes it is Facebook’s manifest destiny to connect every human on Earth, and that the world will be better off for it.
And so, Facebook’s quest to connect the world means a world where a profitable Facebook is the web that binds (or traps, depending on your perspective) everyone. Facebook won’t delete your data, it will just keep that data and use it as you migrate more of your life onto its platforms. Trust Libra to protect the world's unbanked from nefarious bankers with a payment system connected to their Facebook account—a system that also provides a way to commodify user data and communications. Trust your data with Facebook Dating as it helps optimize your love life. Trust Facebook to help safeguard elections from disinformation even as it walks back said plans. Trust Facebook because it is where the global community is and will be.
The threat that Warren poses, then, is to Facebook’s ability to present itself as a universalist ideal for what “the internet” looks like—an ideal that happens to look like an internet where Facebook continues very profitable and central to the operation of the digital world.
Elizabeth Warren is a threat to this vision, but so is China (as Facebook is keen on reminding us). It took commentators far too long to realize that China’s Great Firewall was ultimately a bid to keep out Silicon Valley long enough to build and control an alternative Internet. How long until we realize that Facebook is also engaged in a similar (albeit more ideological) project to convince us that there is no alternative to the internet it envisions for all of us—and how long until we start asking whether we actually want it?