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Break up Facebook, cofounder says: it’s an un-American monopoly

By Lisa Vaas, Sophos

May 13, 2019

Mark’s power is unprecedented and un-American. It is time to break up Facebook.

That’s the gist of what Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes had to say in a lengthy op-ed published by the New York Times on Thursday. Of course, he was referring to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Well, he can probably kiss that friendship goodbye, Hughes said in an interview with CBS This Morning. The two were roommates while they attended Harvard and launched what would become the world’s most dominant social media platform. They’ve been friends ever since, even after Hughes left the company 10 years ago.

Great guy, perhaps a little power mad, and definitely in charge of a social media monopoly that’s strangling innovation in the cradle, Hughes said of Zuckerberg:

Mark is a good, kind person. But 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.

He has too much power.

The untouchable king of social media

Hughes’s editorial delves into how Zuckerberg – who controls 60% of the company’s voting shares – is, to quote a Vox headline, “essentially untouchable.”

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. Facebook’s board works more like an advisory committee than an overseer, because Mark controls around 60 percent of voting shares. 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.

Hughes says this lack of checks on the head of a company that’s now worth about half a trillion dollars was evident in the aftermath of 2018 – what he calls Facebook’s “annus horribilis”, when Russian meddling in US discourse via social media came into focus and the Cambridge Analytica data debacle hatched.

Delete Facebook and go… where?

Disgusted users across the world launched a “Delete Facebook” movement. Fat lot of good it did them. Hughes referred to figures from the Pew Research Center that found that a quarter of users deleted their accounts from their phones during the year leading up to June 2018, but many did so only temporarily. And maybe some of them never left at all but thought they had, ignorant to the fact that Facebook has gobbled up social media rivals including WhatsApp and Instagram.

I heard more than one friend say, ‘I’m getting off Facebook altogether – thank God for Instagram,’ not realizing that Instagram was a Facebook subsidiary. In the end people did not leave the company’s platforms en masse. After all, where would they go?

Hughes thinks it’s time for the US to relearn how to bust monopolies, and Facebook is a good place to start. And no, we shouldn’t allow industries to self-regulate, he said:

We don’t expect calcified rules or voluntary commissions to work to regulate drug companies, health care companies, car manufacturers or credit card providers. Agencies oversee these industries to ensure that the private market works for the public good. In these cases, we all understand that government isn’t an external force meddling in an organic market; it’s what makes a dynamic and fair market possible in the first place. This should be just as true for social networking as it is for air travel or pharmaceuticals.

A $5 billion fine won’t solve this

The US Federal Trade Commission is now weighing whether to hold Zuckerberg and Facebook accountable for the string of privacy lapses, the Washington Post reported last month. In a statement, Facebook said they “hope to reach an appropriate and fair resolution.”

Even the $5 billion fine that the FTC is expected to impose won’t be enough to slow Facebook down, Hughes says. Rather, it’s apparently more like throwing fuel on a fire, given the spike in stock price that it sparked:

Last month, the day after the company predicted in an earnings call that it would need to pay up to $5 billion as a penalty for its negligence – a slap on the wrist – Facebook’s shares surged 7 percent, adding $30 billion to its value, six times the size of the fine.

Nor will Facebook’s offer to appoint some kind of privacy czar. The government “must hold Mark accountable,” Hughes said, rather than just being bowled over by the company’s success and made to look like doddering techno-illiterates:

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.

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