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Facebook co-founder calls for breakup of the social network

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‘I’m angry that [Mark’s] focus on growth led him to sacrifice security and civility for clicks’

Photo by Michele Doying / The Verge

In an op-ed written in The New York Times, one of Facebook’s co-founders has called for the social network to be broken up. Chris Hughes, who helped Mark Zuckerberg launch Facebook from his Harvard dorm 15 years ago, says that the Federal Trade Commission should reverse Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram in order to create more competition in the social media and messaging markets.

Hughes makes the economic argument that Facebook has become a monopoly and that this has limited competition and held back innovation. It’s impossible for users to switch to an alternative social network because no serious competitors exist. Hughes says that no new social networks have been launched since 2011 and that 84 percent of spending on social media ads goes directly to Facebook. He cites the FTC’s breakup of AT&T in the 1980s as well as Whole Foods’ sale of Wild Oats in 2009 as a precedent for how this breakup could happen.

Facebook’s oversized influence.
Image: The New York Times

The problem with Facebook goes beyond economics however, Hughes argues. The News Feed’s algorithms dictate the content that millions of people see every day, its content rules define what counts as hate speech, and there’s no democratic oversight of its processes. Zuckerberg’s ownership of the majority of Facebook’s shares means that there’s no internal check on his power, and there’s no government agency dedicated to overseeing a company like Facebook.

“Mark’s influence is staggering, far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government. He controls three core communications platforms — Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — that billions of people use every day,” writes Hughes. “Mark alone can decide how to configure Facebook’s algorithms to determine what people see in their News Feeds, what privacy settings they can use and even which messages get delivered. He sets the rules for how to distinguish violent and incendiary speech from the merely offensive, and he can choose to shut down a competitor by acquiring, blocking or copying it.”

“Mark is a good, kind person,” Hughes says, “but I’m angry that his focus on growth led him to sacrifice security and civility for clicks.”

Along with breaking up the company, the Facebook co-founder calls for the US to set up a government agency that’s dedicated to regulating tech companies like Facebook. Hughes says the agency should be tasked with protecting people’s privacy, and it should lay down guidelines for how Facebook is allowed to operate, similar to the regulations the EU put in place last year with GDPR.

With his op-ed, which is worth reading in its entirety, Hughes joins a growing number of lawmakers who are calling for the breakup of Facebook. Notably, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has said that she will break up the likes of Facebook if she’s elected president in 2020. Others, including Zuckerberg himself, have called for increased regulation of the big tech firms.