A co-founder of Facebook believes the government should break up the tech giant because his former partner, CEO Mark Zuckerberg, has too much power and is incapable of fixing its many problems.
Chris Hughes, who worked with Zuckerberg for five years,
is now co-chairman of the Economic Security Project and a senior adviser at the Roosevelt Institute.
“Mark’s influence is staggering, far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government. He controls three core communications platforms – Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp – that billions of people use every day, Hughes wrote in an op-ed published by the New York Times.
“Facebook’s board works more like an advisory committee than an overseer, because Mark controls around 60 percent of voting shares,” Hughes wrote.
“Mark alone can decide how to configure Facebook’s algorithms to determine what people see in their News Feeds, what privacy settings they can use and even which messages get delivered. He sets the rules for how to distinguish violent and incendiary speech from the merely offensive, and he can choose to shut down a competitor by acquiring, blocking or copying it,” he warned.
Faced with accusations of censorship and privacy violations, Hughes pointed out that the reputations of Facebook and Zuckerberg have taken “a nose-dive” in recent years.
He said “the sloppy privacy practices that dropped tens of millions of users’ data into a political consulting firm’s lap; the slow response to Russian agents, violent rhetoric and fake news; and the unbounded drive to capture ever more of our time and attention – dominate the headlines.”
Zuckerberg, Hughes said, “is still the same person I watched hug his parents as they left our dorm’s common room at the beginning of our sophomore year.” But it’s “his very humanity that makes his unchecked power so problematic.”
“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,” Hughes wrote.
“The government must hold Mark accountable. For too long, lawmakers have marveled at Facebook’s explosive growth and overlooked their responsibility to ensure that Americans are protected and markets are competitive. Any day now, the Federal Trade Commission is expected to impose a $5 billion fine on the company, but that is not enough; nor is Facebook’s offer to appoint some kind of privacy czar.
“After Mark’s congressional testimony last year, there should have been calls for him to truly reckon with his mistakes. Instead the legislators who questioned him were derided as too old and out of touch to understand how tech works. That’s the impression Mark wanted Americans to have, because it means little will change,” he wrote.
Hughes said Zuckerberg’s power is “un-American.”
The nation’s Founders opposed monopolies, he said, and he recalled the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and the Department of Justice’s break-up of Standard Oil and AT&T, he said.
Zuckerberg’s intent from the beginning, he said, was to accumulate such power.
“From our earliest days, Mark used the word ‘domination’ to describe our ambitions, with no hint of irony or humility,” he said.
“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.”
Hughes said the company’s success is from sabotaging competitors, buying them out, copying them or shutting them down.
Zuckerberg, he said, “has created a leviathan that crowds out entrepreneurship and restricts consumer choice. It’s on our government to ensure that we never lose the magic of the invisible hand. How did we allow this to happen?”
“The most problematic aspect of Facebook’s power is Mark’s unilateral control over speech. There is no precedent for his ability to monitor, organize and even censor the conversations of two billion people,” he wrote. “Facebook engineers write algorithms that select which users’ comments or experiences end up displayed in the News Feeds of friends and family. These rules are proprietary and so complex that many Facebook employees themselves don’t understand them.”
He said the solution is to separate Facebook into multiple companies, enforce antitrust laws by undoing Instagram and WhatsApp acquisitions, and require Zuckerberg to divest management shares.
“But the biggest winners would be the American people. Imagine a competitive market in which they could choose among one network that offered higher privacy standards, another that cost a fee to join but had little advertising and another that would allow users to customize and tweak their feeds as they saw fit,” he said.
Hughes also proposed a new government agency to protect privacy.
“Finally, the agency should create guidelines for acceptable speech on social media. This idea may seem un-American – we would never stand for a government agency censoring speech. But we already have limits on yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, child pornography, speech intended to provoke violence and false statements to manipulate stock prices. We will have to create similar standards that tech companies can use.”