It was another wild week for Facebook. Dueling editorials in The New York Times debated the social network’s very existence. The right is still in an uproar over Facebook’s censorship of conservative viewpoints, users and scientific issues. Meanwhile, on the left, the website— or is it a utility?— has become a campaign issue on its own. Differing Democrats have begun to split on whether stringent regulation of the tech giant will be sufficient, or whether Facebook has become too big to allow to survive.
On Thursday, Chris Hughes tore in to his co-creation, and co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg, in The Times. “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 said. This, Hughes argues, gives Zuckerberg “unilateral control over speech. There is simply no precedent for his ability to monitor, organize and even censor the conversations of two billion people.” Hughes called for Facebook to be broken up, its subsidiaries, Instagram and WhatsApp, to be spun off, and future acquisitions by the company to be banned.
In response, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs and communications (and former Deputy Prime Minister of the UK), Nick Clegg, penned his own Times op-ed on Saturday. The challenges of election interference and privacy safeguards “won’t evaporate by breaking up Facebook or any other big tech company,” Clegg wrote. Instead, “significant resources— and strong new rules” are needed. The site has consistently called “for more regulation, not less,” as an alternative to being broken up.
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), has generated plenty of recent attention campaigning to do just that. On Thursday morning, she cheered Hughes’ opinion piece, tweeting “today’s big tech companies have too much power— over our economy, our society, & our democracy.” She rolled out her own plan to break up the tech giant, as well as Amazon and Google.
One of her rivals, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), seemed to agree, opining that Facebook “has prioritized its growth over the best interests of its consumers, especially on the issue of privacy.” When asked if the social network should be broken up, Harris answered “I think we have to seriously take a look at that.” That didn’t sit well with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). “I don’t think that a president should be running around, pointing at companies, and saying break them up without any kind of process here,” Booker argued. “That sounds more like a Donald Trump thing to say, ‘I’m going to break up you guys.’”
Facebook still has a lot going for it, even after what Hughes called “the annus horribilis of 2018.” The site is still worth half a trillion dollars, and by his estimates, over two-thirds of the 70% of American adults on social media use the site. The stock has climbed more than $64 a share since it’s six-month low on Christmas Eve. Across the seas, politicians are getting frustrated with the social networking giant, and in the States, Facebook faces the prospect of a political two-front war. It’s anyone’s guess whether their assurances, that they know they have some work to do, can be believed. Or, for that matter, how much longer regulators in America and Europe can be appeased.