Chris Hughes, who co-founded Facebook with Mark Zuckerberg and others 15 years ago when they were students at Harvard, believes the federal government should dismantle the extraordinarily powerful social-media giant.
In a 5,700-word New York Times op-ed piece published Thursday, Hughes argued that Zuckerberg holds “unchecked power” that is “unprecedented and un-American.”
“Mark is a good, kind person. But I’m angry that his focus on growth led him to sacrifice security and civility for clicks,” wrote Hughes. “And I’m worried that Mark has surrounded himself with a team that reinforces his beliefs instead of challenging them.”
Hughes, who is now co-chairman of the Economic Security Project and a senior adviser at liberal think tank the Roosevelt Institute, has not worked at Facebook for over a decade. In a coordinated rollout, Hughes, in addition to his cri de coeur in the Times, also gave interviews Thursday morning to NBC News and NPR.
In a response to Hughes’ op-ed, Nick Clegg, Facebook’s VP of global affairs and communications, said, “Facebook accepts that with success comes accountability. 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. That is exactly what Mark Zuckerberg has called for. Indeed, he is meeting government leaders this week to further that work.” Clegg, formerly U.K. deputy prime minister, joined Facebook last year after the resignation of Elliot Schrage in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
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In the NYT essay, Hughes called for the FTC, together with the Department of Justice, to force Facebook to spin off Instagram and WhatsApp into separate companies, and also to bar Facebook from making acquisitions for several years.
“Mark Zuckerberg cannot fix Facebook, but our government can,” Hughes wrote.
Facebook is anticipating an FTC fine of up to $5 billion to settle allegations of the company’s violations of privacy regulations. But that “slap on the wrist” is not enough to check Facebook’s dangerous and anticompetitive control over communication in the digital age, according to Hughes.
“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,” Hughes wrote.
Facebook’s numerous missteps have ranged from huge user-data breaches to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and from its slow response to Russian meddling in U.S. elections to its inability to curb hate speech, violent content and misinformation on its platforms. Those have spurred new calls for government intervention to rein in the massive corporation, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to break up the company and other tech giants.
In response to the backlash over Facebook’s parade of scandals, Zuckerberg has said Facebook welcomes new government rules about social media — indeed, he’s said the industry needs them. In a March 30 op-ed in the Washington Post, he called for laws addressing how internet companies treat harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability. Critics called Zuckerberg’s suggestions self-serving, saying such regulations would give Facebook legal cover for problems on its platform.
Meanwhile, in March, Zuckerberg — seemingly in part as a bid to fend off regulatory action against his company — outlined a new privacy vision for Facebook’s apps, pledging that the company will make changes to keep users’ messages private and introduce tools to let shared content expire. With the shift in focus, longtime chief product officer Chris Cox exited the company.
But the root of the problem with Facebook, according to Hughes, is that it is effectively a monopoly that has no oversight. “When it hasn’t acquired its way to dominance, Facebook has used its monopoly position to shut out competing companies or has copied their technology,” he wrote.
Hughes also said that in addition to requiring Facebook to divest Instagram and WhatsApp, Congress should create a new federal agency for regulating tech companies. Such an agency would carry a mandate of protecting privacy and creating “guidelines for acceptable speech on social media.”
At one point, Hughes owned 2% of Facebook. According to Hughes, he sold his Facebook shares in 2012 — earning $500 million — and today does not invest directly in any social-media companies. He wrote a book about income equality, “Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn,” published last year.