Facebook cofounder calls for company to break up over 'unprecedented' power

Adam Gabbatt in New York and Kari Paul in San Francisco


A cofounder of Facebook has called for the government to break up the company, warning that Mark Zuckerberg’s power is “unprecedented and un-American”.

Chris Hughes, who helped established Facebook after meeting Zuckerberg at Harvard, wrote in the New York Times that Facebook’s acquisition of rival platforms had given Zuckerberg unparalleled power over speech and that, from the early days of Facebook, Zuckerberg had touted “domination” as an ultimate goal.

“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.

“We are a nation with a tradition of reining in monopolies, no matter how well intentioned the leaders of these companies may be. Mark’s power is unprecedented and un-American.

“It is time to break up Facebook.”

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Facebook has more than 2 billion monthly users, according to its most recent earnings report, while WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram are each used by more than 1 billion people. Hughes’s appeal for tighter regulation comes as some lawmakers are calling for big tech companies to be reined in.

The Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren has pledged that if she is elected president, she will break up Facebook, Amazon and Google, criticizing “anti-competitive mergers” such as Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp in 2012 and 2014, respectively.

She tweeted her support for Hughes on Thursday, saying: “It’s time to break up big tech.” She has proposed passing legislation to diminish the growing power of giant tech firms including Amazon, Google and Facebook.

“Today’s big tech companies have too much power – over our economy, our society and our democracy,” she said. “They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private info for profit, hurt small businesses and stifled innovation.”

Hughes left Facebook in 2007 to work on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and he sold his Facebook shares in 2012 – for half a billion dollars – but he said he still felt “a sense of anger and responsibility” at the company’s omnipotence.

“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 2 billion people,” Hughes wrote.

Facebook has been plagued by scandal and growing outrage regarding its influence over the past several years. In March 2018, it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that worked with Donald Trump’s election team, had harvested millions of Facebook profiles to target users with personalized political advertisements. Just last month, Facebook admitted to “unintentionally” uploading the address books of 1.5 million users without consent.

Even before the March 2018 revelation shone a light on its data collection practices, the company had been implicated in a Russian influence operation to interfere with US presidential elections. It has also been criticized for its role in inciting ethnic violence in a genocidal campaign in Myanmar. Misinformation, violations of privacy and the livestreaming of terrorist attacks have dogged the company this year.

The activist groups Color of Change and Majority Action are urging Facebook’s shareholders to vote against Zuckerberg’s nomination to the board at a 30 May meeting. They are also calling for the creation of an independent government data protection agency to rein in his influence, saying the executive has proven he is unwilling or unable to address the growing concerns surrounding the platform.

“With the near-constant headlines of Facebook’s failures, breaches and risks, shareholders cannot be assured that the company will adopt the comprehensive reforms needed to restore confidence,” Eli Kasargod-Staub, the executive director of Majority Action, said. “The most important action shareholders can now take is to withhold support from Zuckerberg’s re-election to the board.”

Hughes said the government should create a new agency to regulate technology companies and create “acceptable guidelines” for free speech on social media.

“If we don’t have public servants shaping these policies, corporations will,” he said.

“I don’t blame Mark for his quest for domination. He 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.”

Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communication, said Zuckerberg supported better regulation of the internet and was meeting with government leaders this week to further this work.

“Facebook accepts that with success comes accountability,” he said. “But you don’t enforce accountability by calling for the breakup of a successful American company. Accountability of tech companies can only be achieved through the painstaking introduction of new rules for the internet.”