May 10, 2019
To say that Facebook has had a rough time of late would be something of an understatement. Now, even those who were involved with the formation of the company are saying that it's time to make Facebook more accountable, and to break it into smaller, less powerful companies.
Writing in the New York Times, Chris Hughes, who had been involved with Facebook since its embryonic beginnings in 2002, says that Facebook has gotten simply too big for its own- and Mark Zuckerberg's- good.
He proposes that the company be divided into smaller ones to mitigate its power and the all-consuming affect it has on its users. Many agree, including prominent US government officials.
Mark, the Person
At a time when everyone, from the guy in the cubicle next to you to your own grandmother, has an opinion on Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, it's refreshing to get a perspective from someone who was there right from day dot. Hughes is critical of Facebook in many ways, but perhaps more forgiving of Zuckerberg, whom he speaks of as a friend, first and foremost.
For a person regularly lampooned for his arrogant facade and awkward social skills, it can sometimes be easy to forget that Zuckerberg is an actual person, rather than the algorithmic mouthpiece for a self-aware Facebook- the creature that he created and is struggling to control. Hughes believes that he is a decent person who has lost his way, and surrounded himself with hype men:
“Mark is a good, kind person. But I’m angry that his focus on growth led him to sacrifice security and civility for clicks. I’m worried that Mark has surrounded himself with a team that reinforces his beliefs instead of challenging them.”
It's an insight of Facebook's leader that we rarely see, but Hughes doesn't give his old friend much slack. He also believes that the government should hold Zuckerberg accountable, that the upcoming $5 billion fine from the FTC doesn't go far enough, and that the company's offer to appoint a privacy czar is not an adequate response to the issues it has caused.
The Problem with Facebook
So, what exactly is the issue with Facebook, according to Hughes? In his article he points to not one issue but a multitude, from problems with privacy, to interference with elections, and the vice-like grip that it holds on the throat of social media.
Some of Hughes' concerns are reassuringly mundane and relatable, such as his own jonesing for the endorphin rush of checking status updates:
“Some days, lying on the floor next to my 1-year-old son as he plays with his dinosaurs, I catch myself scrolling through Instagram, waiting to see if the next image will be more beautiful than the last. What am I doing? I know it’s not good for me, or for my son, and yet I do it anyway. The choice is mine, but it doesn't feel like a choice.”
Hughes also points to Facebook's approach to competition as being considerably problematic. He criticizes the company for shutting out the short-video sharing platform, Vine, from searching for Facebook friends- a calculated move which he says hobbled and ultimately doomed Vine. For those companies that it couldn't directly affect, Hughes claims that it would simply copy instead. One given example is Snapchat, which Facebook emulated in its own stories and disappearing messages for Messenger. Hughes states this was ‘wildly successful', which seems something of an overstatement, but he does point to it leading to one of Facebook's informal slogans – ‘Don't be too proud to copy'.
If you want more insight into Zuckerberg and Facebook, Roger McNamee's ‘Zucked' is a rather good, if slightly sobering, take on the company's rise.
Breaking up Facebook
The underlying message in all of this is that Hughes wants to see Facebook broken up, for the sake of its users, the public at large, and for his old pal, Zuckerberg. The company, he argues, is simply too large now, and it's discouraging any competition or start ups, just like the one he began at the start of the millennium:
“The vibrant marketplace that once drove Facebook and other social media companies to compete to come up with better products has virtually disappeared. This means there’s less chance of start-ups developing healthier, less exploitative social media platforms.”
Hughes believes that the government should enforce anti-trust laws and separate Instagram and WhatsApp from Facebook, as well as banning the company from making any further acquisitions for several years. It's a fair point. The company's approach to competition in the past has been ‘If you can't beat them, buy them'.
Of course, he's not the first one to mull over the prospect. In March, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren made exactly the same point. Her proposal would affect any companies with an annual global revenue of $25 billion, and specifically target those that offer products or services on a platform that they own. Warren wants to separate these two components to encourage competition and fairness in the marketplace. The upshot of this, claims Warren, is that smaller businesses would have the playing field leveled.
Whether its Warren, or someone else who makes it to the Whitehouse in 2020, Facebook's unchecked monopoly seems to be an ever present itch that can't be ignored for much longer.
Regulation, Government Style
Breaking up Facebook, Hughes says, doesn't go far enough. As well as being smaller, it (and other tech companies) needs to be held accountable, which means regulation, the first goal of which should be privacy. This isn't a new suggestion. In his recent appearances before Congress, Zuckerberg has been threatened with government intervention if Facebook is unable to get its house in order and better serve its users, rather than advertisers.
In other countries, governments have tired of waiting for the industry to monitor itself, and brought in dedicated agencies to regulate. In the UK, the government is on the verge of implementing a body to oversee tech companies such as Facebook. As well as harsh fines for those that step out of line, it will also introduce an organisation to study the long term affects of social media use and online living, as well as offering help and advice for those negatively affected. It won't be tax payers picking up the tab, but tech companies themselves, funded by a 0.5% levy on profits.
Surprisingly, in recent months, Zuckerberg himself has called for more regulation, despite being staunchly against it in the past. In an op-ed for the Washington Post this March, Zuckerberg stated ‘People shouldn’t have to rely on individual companies addressing these issues by themselves'. A sign that he's softening, or that he realizes that for Facebook to continue, he will need to relinquish some control?
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