Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Chris Hughes, a Facebook Co-Founder, Argues for the Breakup of Facebook

Chris Hughes in an op-ed for the New York Times:

Facebook’s dominance is not an accident of history. The company’s strategy was to beat every competitor in plain view, and regulators and the government tacitly — and at times explicitly — approved. In one of the government’s few attempts to rein in the company, the F.T.C. in 2011 issued a consent decree that Facebook not share any private information beyond what users already agreed to. Facebook largely ignored the decree. Last month, the day after the company predicted in an earnings call that it would need to pay up to $5 billion as a penalty for its negligence — a slap on the wrist — Facebook’s shares surged 7 percent, adding $30 billion to its value, six times the size of the fine.

The F.T.C.’s biggest mistake was to allow Facebook to acquire Instagram and WhatsApp. In 2012, the newer platforms were nipping at Facebook’s heels because they had been built for the smartphone, where Facebook was still struggling to gain traction. Mark responded by buying them, and the F.T.C. approved.

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The alternative is bleak. If we do not take action, Facebook’s monopoly will become even more entrenched. With much of the world’s personal communications in hand, it can mine that data for patterns and trends, giving it an advantage over competitors for decades to come.

Mike Masnick of Techdirt wrote a counterargument to this piece which, I think, rather misses the point while pointing out many of the errors in Hughes’ piece. Yes, Hughes mixes up patents and copyright infringement, and he employs flawed readings of CDA 230 and the First Amendment.

But the bulk of Hughes’ argument is strong: Facebook grew by acquiring competitors to establish an enormous user base over which it wields control of communications to an unprecedented degree. Breaking the company into greater subsidiary companies would allow users to join multiple platforms if they’d like, remain on a single one if that’s what pleases them, and prevent a mass singular collection of data.

Facebook spokesperson and former Deputy Prime Minister of the U.K. Nick Clegg read Hughes’ editorial and responded predictably. Of course Facebook wants to muddy the waters by positioning themselves as just another tech company because, if all “big tech” companies are treated the same and Facebook gets to help write the rules on that, they can give themselves an advantage.