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A path for regulators to break up Facebook remains unclear

April Glaser writes:

Facebook is big. Possibly too big. Which is why the chorus of experts and former Facebookers who think it’s time to break the company up is getting louder. Last Thursday, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes wrote a mammoth op-ed in the New York Times about why the company that made him very wealthy should be less powerful. In his view, the way to do that is to make the market more competitive. To do that, Hughes recommends (among other ideas) severing Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger from the Facebook mothership.

Hughes isn’t the only one worried that Facebook’s scale, design, and social networking dominance allow the vast dissemination of hate and misinformation. In March, Sen. Elizabeth Warren shared an ambitious proposal to undo Facebook’s purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp, among other antitrust actions that would reduce the power of massive tech platforms. There’s now a campaign, called Freedom From Facebook, urging the Federal Trade Commission to break up the company. On Sunday, another presidential contender, Sen. Kamala Harris, said she also thinks the feds should look into amputating Facebook’s subsidiaries. Even the odd Republican is antitrust-curious. “I think Facebook is an extremely creepy company. I don’t know if they’ve done a good job with anything,” Sen. Josh Hawley said in an interview with the Verge in March. “We need to have a discussion, though, about what antitrust looks like when applied to the tech world.”

So where is this momentum taking us? Right now, the FTC is reportedly deliberating how big of a fine it will slap on Facebook following an investigation after the Cambridge Analytica scandal into whether the social media giant broke an FTC privacy decree. Since 2011, Facebook has been legally required to get permission from users before sharing private data about them beyond what they’ve explicitly agreed to, yet for years the company allowed thousands of developers to not only collect data from people who downloaded their Facebook apps but also data on their friends. That fine could be in the billions. But for a company as big as Facebook, a fine alone may feel more like a speeding ticket. Following a year in which the company faced a PR crisis seemingly every week, Facebook has reformed some of its data-collection practices and is now in the midst of a “pivot to privacy.” Even Mark Zuckerberg is talking about more government regulation—though he would certainly prefer a version that does not turn Facebook into a 21st-century Ma Bell. His problem is that “break up Facebook”—like “abolish ICE” and the “Green New Deal”—could quickly become an idea within the bounds of serious discussion. [Continue reading…]

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