Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes argues for a breakup of Facebook, but easier said than done

Facebook could be a monopolist, but it's not a slam dunk the courts would see it that way. A Facebook breakup is interesting but the details are messy.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes says the social networking giant and CEO Mark Zuckerberg have too much power over communications and it's time to break apart the company.

In a New York Times essay, Hughes makes his case. The essay is blistering to say the least. Two excerpts sum up the break up Facebook argument well.

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 disappointed in myself and the early Facebook team for not thinking more about how the News Feed algorithm could change our culture, influence elections and empower nationalist leaders. And I'm worried that Mark has surrounded himself with a team that reinforces his beliefs instead of challenging them.

The government must hold Mark accountable.


Because Facebook so dominates social networking, it faces no market-based accountability. This means that every time Facebook messes up, we repeat an exhausting pattern: first outrage, then disappointment and, finally, resignation.

I can't say I disagree with Hughes' take. Facebook has screwed up repeatedly. Zuckerberg's appearance at F8 and his remarks about privacy didn't help matters. The future may be private, but it's laughable that Facebook can get us there. And on some level you could argue that Facebook is an antitrust concern -- at least when it comes to taking up our time. In many ways, Hughes' argument rhymes with the regulation Elizabeth Warren proposes for big tech

But I'm nagged by one question: What are the details behind a Facebook breakup?

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Those details get messy. Consider:

Hughes argues that the government and its antitrust laws are tools we can use today, but it's unclear Facebook would be considered a monopoly. We could also toss in a looming Federal Trade Commission fine as something that could keep Facebook in check.

The argument is that the Department of Justice broke up Standard Oil and AT&T so they could break up tech giants too. But the big question is whether the court system would see Facebook as a monopoly. Yes, Facebook has its core site, Instagram and WhatApp, but a monopoly argument could be tough to make. Why? Facebook isn't essential. It's not oil and it's certainly not communication lines. Depending on how you want to argue it, Facebook faces competition everywhere vs. Google, Apple, Amazon and other smaller players.

In an antitrust trial, Facebook could argue that its real competition is anything that takes up your time -- TV, YouTube, email etc. Facebook could also note that beyond social networking it's not No. 1. Facebook could note that it competes globally and doesn't win. In advertising, Facebook isn't the top dog. Google is.

Facebook as a monopolist only holds weight because people appear to be addicted to social networking. Facebook is a monopolist just like a heroin dealer would be. The meaningful alternative to Facebook isn't another service. The meaningful alternative is deleting that app completely and getting social networking sober.

What does a breakup look like? So let's just say that we can wave a wand and break up Facebook. The details get sketchy. The components of Facebook have huge scale by themselves. Instagram could squash competition with or without Facebook. The details of creating baby Facebooks would be gnarly. Think of the break up of AT&T. All of the Baby Bells were pretty strong in their markets and basically monopolies.

Who governs the algorithms? One of Hughes' more notable points is that Zuckerberg can tweak Facebook's algorithms and how we communicate on his own. He has the power of what we see, how we relate to it and to some degree what we think. That's a bit much for one person. One big detail would be transparency in algorithms and perhaps a new bureaucracy on algorithm fairness would be formed. This algorithm by regulation would be a disaster if the tech knowhow shown in various Congressional hearings is any indicator.

Privacy regulation. It was telling how Google I/O had the search giant talking about privacy and actually delivering real tools to developers. Facebook talked about turning a big ship with privacy at the center with a whole lot of nada behind it. It's clear that there will have to be some kind of privacy regulation and agency to control Facebook's scale somewhat. But those details are nasty, too. For now, the US is basically outsourcing privacy regulation to the EU since any global company has to comply with things like GDPR

Add it up and Facebook isn't likely to sweat Hughes' call for a breakup. Ironing out just a few of these aforementioned details may take a decade. By then, we'll all move on to something new.

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