Could it happen to the company of Rockefeller’s counterpart today, Mark Zuckerberg?
Its co-founder, Chris Hughes says it should.
Ironically, Hughes has just delivered his judgment with a full-throated scathing assessment via a mainstream media icon, The New Times “It’s Time to Break Up Facebook” — as well as in more limited coverage across the media cosmos.
Hughes, “with a sense of anger and responsibility” laments Zuckerberg’s “staggering influence, far beyond that of almost anyone else in private sector or in government … control[ing] three core communications platforms … that billions of people use every day…
“The government must hold Mark accountable.”
Nick Clegg, the company’s vice president for global affairs and communications, responded quickly: “Facebook accepts that with success comes accountability. But you don’t enforce accountability by calling for a breakup of a successful American company. Accountability of tech companies can only be achieved through the painstaking introduction of new rules for the internet.”
Rules for the internet, of course, widens the aperture for future debate on this subject appreciably.
It’s where the anthem, “breaking up is hard to do” enters. Hughes: “Facebook isn’t afraid of a few more rules. It’s afraid of an antitrust case and of the kind of accountability real government oversight would bring.”
Yet, difficult as it might be, a Facebook re-set need not be a doomsday for the company. Think “the old” — and the current — IBM and AT&T.
On what might be called the IBM “soft breakup” Hughes observed: “… the Justice Department’s 1970s suit accusing IBM of illegally maintaining its monopoly on personal computer sales ended in a stalemate. But along the way, IBM changed many of its behaviors. It stopped bundling its hardware and software [and] chose an extremely open design for the operating system in its personal computer…” IBM today succeds with an entirely different business model.
And in what has been called “one of the successful spinoffs in history”, in 1983 – under the Sherman Antitrust Act – AT&T (better known then as “Ma Bell”) signed a consent agree to give up its local calling services (“Baby Bells”) but held onto its long-distance and related businesses. In 2018 AT&T was reportedly the world’s largest telecommunications company.
Still, a case can be made that Facebook is truly unique.
The fundamental charges against it in the U.S. and internationally are formidable. In fact, they are arguably unprecedented. Monopoly issues aside (although Hughes has plenty to say on that), the more damaging criticisms of the company seem virtually existential for it; they relate to its impact on privacy, censorship, cyber security, politics, hate and terrorist messages, and the subtle control of users’ psyche — all highly relevant to a healthy society.
Hughes also acknowledges that many of those issues are endemic to other giant social media companies:
“We need a new agency, empowered by Congress to regulate tech companies. Its first mandate should be to protect privacy.
“The Europeans have made headway on privacy with the General Protection Regulation, a law that guarantees users a minimal level of protection. A landmark privacy bill [sic] in the United States should specify exactly what control Americans have over their digital information, require clear disclosure to users and provide enough flexibility to the agency to exercise effective oversight over time …”
Citing existing limits on anti-social behavior such as calling, “fire in a crowded theater”, Hughes counsels: “…the agency should create guidelines for acceptable speech on social media … These standards should, of course, be subject to review of the courts, just as any other limits on speech are. But there is no constitutional right to harass others or live-stream violence.
“These are difficult challenges … But sticking with the status quo would be worse: If we don’t have public servants shaping these policies, corporations will.”
Congress, no doubt, will take note.