Many people have argued that Facebook’s concentrated power is dangerous to society at large. Many people have argued that Mark Zuckerberg’s concentrated power within Facebook’s corporate structure reinforces and exacerbates those dangers. In response to growing concerns about Facebook, many people have argued that the company should be broken up by the government, an enforcement of antitrust law already on the books.
But what the hell do those people know? They don’t know Mark Zuckerberg and they didn’t help build Facebook. The people calling for Facebook’s punishment are all jealous biters who hate seeing other people succeed. Except for Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder who called for the company’s breakup in a lengthy op-ed in the New York Times this week. (Hughes is doing an elaborate PR rollout for this call to action. His op-ed is accompanied by a glamorous headshot and he’s also sitting for interviews with various media outlets.)
Hughes’s op-ed runs through the ideas for keeping Facebook accountable, mainly by spinning off Instagram and WhatsApp into standalone businesses that compete against Facebook, and by creating comprehensive government regulations for how social media companies handle privacy concerns and speech. The thing that makes this sort of argument slightly more forceful than similar arguments from others is Hughes’s deep understanding of Facebook’s early ambition — he developed many of the company’s early products, including the News Feed, but has not worked there in more than a decade — and his understanding of Mark Zuckerberg as a person. Anecdotes throughout the piece paint a picture showing that even before Facebook’s success, Zuckerberg was driven and reluctant to take orders from anyone.
I don’t blame Mark for his quest for domination. He has demonstrated nothing more nefarious than the virtuous hustle of a talented entrepreneur. Yet he has created a leviathan that crowds out entrepreneurship and restricts consumer choice. It’s on our government to ensure that we never lose the magic of the invisible hand.
In recent months, Mark Zuckerberg has made a big show of requesting government regulations, including in a March op-ed in the Washington Post. Hughes believes these are mostly an effort to ward off the more extreme regulation that some, including presidential candidate and Senator Elizabeth Warren, are demanding. He says:
I don’t think these proposals were made in bad faith. But I do think they’re an attempt to head off the argument that regulators need to go further and break up the company. Facebook isn’t afraid of a few more rules. It’s afraid of an antitrust case and of the kind of accountability that real government oversight would bring.
While proposals for the FTC breaking up Facebook have been floating for a while, Hughes also tries to tackle other parts of Facebook’s empire, including threats to privacy. He endorses the idea of a “landmark privacy bill” that “should specify exactly what control Americans have over their digital information [and] require clearer disclosure to users.” And platforms should have basic interoperability: One of the things Cambridge Analytica demonstrated was that even if users were frustrated with Facebook, there was no place where they could port their data.
Lastly, Hughes touches the third rail of the social-media track, free speech, and endorses the idea of further legal guidelines for social-media platforms.
This idea may seem un-American — we would never stand for a government agency censoring speech. But we already have limits on yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, child pornography, speech intended to provoke violence and false statements to manipulate stock prices. We will have to create similar standards that tech companies can use. These standards should of course be subject to the review of the courts, just as any other limits on speech are. But there is no constitutional right to harass others or live-stream violence.
(For what it’s worth, those stated carveouts to the law that shields platforms from liability are the guidelines tech companies already use, so he’s just proposing … more carveouts? And those carveouts almost exclusively hurt the small competitors that Hughes wants to cultivate … I guess my point is: it’s complicated!)
Hughes’s op-ed is far from a radical departure from what has already been said regarding Facebook. But his call to action is one of the most forceful, even as Facebook-made billionaires like WhatsApp founder Brian Acton and early advisors like Roger McNamee have called on users to abandon Zuckerberg’s company. If you think of Hughes as a combination of expert testimony and character witness, it becomes tough to argue with his conclusions.