A social media giant finds itself under the spotlight again. Critics have previously charged that fake news, fake personas and a massive data breach on Facebook helped deliver the Trump presidency. (For a background, read “Facebook: moment of truth?” published March 30, 2018). Somehow Facebook managed to survive all the unwanted scrutiny last year. But now there are calls from within to reform.
Chris Hughes, a co-founder at Facebook, took the tech and political worlds by storm after his op-ed – It’s Time to Break up Facebook – was published by New York Times last week. The gist: Mark Zuckerberg is a good guy but his unchecked power and drive for total domination has made things go out of control, as evident in Facebook’s clumsy hold on vast user data and its arbitrary control on free speech.
The op-ed has divided the tech community, but Hughes’s voice is the strongest yet to lay out a case for breaking up an empire that also includes WhatsApp and Instagram. Besides privacy and censorship concerns, the now-cashed-out co-founder convinces readers how Facebook’s huge scale allows it to suffocate promising startups as it copies them, buys them out or simply blocks them from its platform.
Reversing Facebook’s strategic acquisitions like WhatsApp and Instagram – the two popular platforms that revived Facebook fortunes in last five years – could be a way to check the behemoth’s monopolistic behaviour and predatory scale, Hughes argues. Making these apps independent and divested of the core Facebook platform might allow more startups to innovate and compete in the social media space.
As the US competition watchdog is reportedly looking into a review of prior tech mergers, a reversal of WhatsApp and Instagram buyouts may be the only credible way to check Facebook’s power. These calls are now growing louder. But expect the US-based tech giants to lobby hard against such a move – after all, any anti-trust action against Facebook will have repercussions for Google and Amazon as well. Predictably, Facebook has played down the call for its breakup. It’s using the same-old argument that only “new rules for the Internet” can provide accountability for tech companies, not breaking up “a successful American company”. If the solution is indeed new regulations, it throws the ball right back to the US Congress, which remains soft on Facebook.
In the end, one wonders if Facebook is too big to break or just too hot to handle for the US lawmakers and regulators? For Facebook, this, too, shall pass, as politicians are divided and billions of social media users have no good alternative.