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Facebook Fires Back at Co-Founder’s Call to Break Up the Social Giant: ‘Success Should Not Be Penalized’

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Facebook’s top communications exec penned his own op-ed in the New York Times, responding to an opinion piece published two days ago in the newspaper by co-founder Chris Hughes — who urged the U.S. government to find a way to break up Facebook and put other checks on its “unprecedented and un-American power.”

In the Times piece Saturday, Nick Clegg, Facebook’s VP of global affairs and communications, argued that Hughes gets some fundamental things wrong; for one thing, Clegg disputed that Facebook has any kind of monopoly control. He also said breaking up the company “won’t fix what’s wrong with social media.”

“Facebook shouldn’t be broken up — but it does need to be held to account,” Clegg wrote. “Anyone worried about the challenges we face in an online world should look at getting the rules of the internet right, not dismantling successful American companies.”

Hughes, who has not worked at Facebook for more than decade, on Thursday called for the FTC and Department of Justice to force Facebook to spin off Instagram and WhatsApp and also to prohibit Facebook from making acquisitions for several years. “Mark Zuckerberg cannot fix Facebook, but our government can,” Hughes wrote.

In his rebuttal, Clegg suggested that Facebook has become a major target for critics because it has become massive, with more than 2 billion users around the world. But, he opined, “Big in itself isn’t bad. Success should not be penalized.”

Indeed, Clegg spun the company’s immense profits as allowing it to address the ills facing the social-media platform: “In Facebook’s case, our size has not only brought innovation, it has also allowed us to make a huge investment in protecting the safety and security of our services.”

To Hughes, the concern is that Facebook has unchecked power to control the flow of information to literally billions of people. “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.”

The right remedy for those concerns is more government oversight, Clegg wrote: “We are in the unusual position of asking for more regulation, not less.”

Zuckerberg in March spelled out Facebook’s position, asking for new laws that govern how internet companies treat harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability. “In all these areas, we believe that governments should make the rules consistent with their own principles, not those of private companies like Facebook,” Clegg wrote in the op-ed.

Clegg is the former U.K. deputy prime minister who joined Facebook last year after the resignation of longtime company exec Elliot Schrage in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

In his essay, Clegg asserted that Hughes’ allegation that Facebook wields monopoly power is wrong. Competitors he reeled off include Google’s YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter, Pinterest and TikTok, Apple’s iMessage, WeChat, Line and Microsoft’s Skype. He also said “most estimates” put Facebook’s share of the U.S. digital ad market at about 20%; research firm eMarketer most recently projected Facebook will own 22.1% of U.S. digital ad revenue in 2019 (versus 37.2% for Google).

In addition, Hughes displays a “misunderstanding” of antitrust law, Clegg wrote. The purpose of those laws is to ensure consumers have access to low-cost, high-quality products and services, not to “punish a company because people disagree with its management.”

Last month, Facebook disclosed that it expects to be hit with an FTC fine of up to $5 billion to settle allegations of the company’s violations of privacy regulations. Hughes argued that an FTC fine wouldn’t do anything to change Facebook’s behavior or diminish its power.

Hughes is far from the first person to raise serious concerns about Facebook or to urge that it be broken up. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is angling for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, has proposed a plan to break up Facebook and other tech giants.