On May 9, the New York Times published an excoriating editorial by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes about his former company. The piece slammed the social network for its handling of user privacy, harmful content, and monopolistic business practices. Hughes also characterized Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as an irresponsible leader.
The executive concludes his incendiary piece by calling on the federal government to dismantle the Silicon Valley giant.
Why Hughes Wants to Break Up the Corporation he Helped Create
Hughes notes his disenchantment with Facebook began in 2017 when the Cambridge Analytica scandal became public knowledge. He argued the company’s inaction in preventing foreign intervention in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and the spread of misinformation represent massive organizational failures. He also chided the company for offering apologies and pledges instead of taking action to remedy its shortcomings.
The former New Republic owner also scolded the company for the way it became the world’s largest social media platform. Hughes claims the firm used its incredible reach to stifle market innovation by crushing or copying competitors. He specifically accused the company of killing the Vine video-sharing app once it became popular by denying it Facebook interoperability.
Six4Three, an app developer that sued the firm in 2017, claimed the network did the same thing to its products.
Hughes also argued the firm is simply too big to prevail. He stated that the parent company of Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp has a monopoly on personal data. The Harvard graduate pointed out the platform has a greater user base than all other popular social media services combined. The Economic Security Project co-chair stated Facebook has become too powerful to continue to exist in its current form.
To back up his argument, Hughes cited two instances when the company arbitrarily interfered with its users’ communication. He explained Zuckerberg had his engineers delete private messages of Myanmar users who were attempting to spark religious violence. Hughes also referenced an instance when Facebook’s executives deleted their communications with other people, including those between Zuckerberg and himself.
Fixing the Problem
In addition to fierce criticism, the Facebook co-founder also offered ideas on how to make the platform more manageable and responsible. Hughes said the federal government should undo Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp and bar the firm from buying any other companies for several years.
The multimillionaire also called for new American data protection laws akin to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation. Hughes also proposed the government create a new agency in charge of reining in the entire tech sector. He argued such a department could also keep tech monoliths like Amazon and Google from infringing upon public privacy. The programmer said this theoretical agency should create new guidelines limiting what constitutes acceptable speech online.
In April, members of the British government, including Prime Minister Therese May, unveiled a proposal to create a similar regulator in the United Kingdom.
Reactions to Hughes’ Op-Ed
Predictably, Facebook’s executives did not offer support for Hughes’s proposal to dismantle the company. Nick Clegg, the firm’s vice president of global affairs and communication, said the corporation supports increased tech sector accountability. He pointed to Zuckerberg’s own recent call for the drafting of new online legislation. But he also noted the implementation of those measures doesn’t require “the breakup of a successful American company.”
Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, tweeted, “Regulation is important and necessary, but I’m not convinced breaking us up is the right path.” The executive also asked Hughes to further discuss the topic with him.
Democratic presidential candidate and Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted a link to Hughes’ column and reiterated her position that the Big Tech companies should be dismantled. Rep. Ro Khanna agreed with the executive’s assertion that Facebook shouldn’t have been allowed to purchase Instagram and WhatsApp. However, the California congressman stopped short of supporting a corporate breakup and cited the need for American tech companies to keep up with Chinese innovation.
Though Hughes’ op-ed has many inflammatory passages, particularly his calling for the establishment of a new government censor, the core of his argument is sound. Over the past 15 years, Facebook has proven it is incapable of internally enacting true reform. Because of the firm’s outsized influence on modern culture, it should not be allowed to operate without accountability.
As the polarized reaction to the executive’s remarks has shown, there is no consensus on what action should be taken. But with the 2020 general election looming and public scrutiny of the firm remaining high, a reckoning between Facebook and the government seems inevitable.