Is It Time to Break Up Facebook? What Are The Options?

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Facebook’s staggering dominance of social media is a thorn in the side of its competitors, governments and anti-monopoly advocates. Recently, one of Facebook’s co-founders, Chris Hughes, in a New York Times editorial, called for the company’s break-up on moral grounds.

Immediately, the idea came under attack from Mark Zuckerberg as well as mainstream tech journalists. A friend just told me, “Dude, are you serious? Mark couldn’t do wrong. After all, he pledges to donate 99% of his shares to charity.”  (The fallacy has a name: “appeal to accomplishment.”)

Why Is It Important to Break Up Facebook?

Refer to the Hughes article again where he gives several examples for why Facebook needs its wings clipped. Mainly, he refers to the company’s sudden takeovers of WhatsApp and Instagram. In earlier times, such a move would have been facilitated with more regulatory oversight.

In 2011, Facebook chose to ignore a decree on user data privacy leading to a fine of $5 billion. The amount of attention Facebook received only raised its stock market value to $30 billion. Obviously, Mark Zuckerberg is at the point of not heeding others’ concerns about his tactics.

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Facebook has been aggressively using its monopoly to shut down competitors. As Hughes notes, no major social media company has emerged since 2011. If a startup brings a new exciting feature, Facebook will buy up the idea at throwaway prices.

Never before in the history of the Internet has so much power rested with one person. Evidently, Facebook’s hold on the social media system is so complete that its users can’t even migrate to other platforms.

In the interest of those very users, we present a few likely options if and when the idea of Facebook’s breakup gains momentum.

Option 1: “New Brandeis” Anti-Trust Laws

Standard anti-trust laws are not enough to deal with tech monopolies. As of now, the legal regulations on anti-trust must evolve to a new benchmark.

In the US, consumer advocates are calling for a new anti-trust concept called “New Brandeis,” after Louis D. Brandeis, which alters the very definition of anti-trust. In the past, the word was defined to protect consumer interests to ensure lower prices. However, in the tech age, companies like Google and Facebook are able to get away with claims that their services are “free.”

According to the New Brandeis approach, the definition of anti-trust should now include protecting the overall competitive structure. New Brandeis advocates call for government regulations in keeping the markets open and competitive. If this becomes the law, a large tech company must split into independent companies.

Option 2: Treating Social Media as a Utility

Social media as a public utility makes sense if you agree in it being an essential service. According to the current definition, platforms like Facebook own all the data provided to it by users. In exchange, the users are not charged for the service.

How about restricting Facebook on the amount of data they can “charge” from a user depending on access levels? Here, compliance with regulations such as EU’s GDPR is a step in the right direction.

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Of course, all good utilities require mandatory oversights by independent government agencies. Now if Facebook has to do business in any country, it should have to subject itself to oversights. As Hughes suggests, one man alone should not have the power to decide what happens to someone else’s data.

Option 3: Restrict Aggressive Patent Hoarding

There are historical precedents about monopolies relaxing their patents. One example is Bell Labs, which invented the telephone and owned thousands of patents. It even owned things like lasers and transistors. However, after the US government sued Bell Labs, they were forced to part with many of their patents. In its aftermath, several new companies, including IBM, Intel and Microsoft, came into existence.

Can it be argued that companies like Google and Facebook have also been benefiting from past legislation on patent relaxation? In that case, they shouldn’t have a problem letting go of some of their privileges, should they?

Summary

Hughes started a debate on the personal ambition of Zuckerberg, who owns 60 percent of Facebook’s shares now. In fact, there is no dearth of people who wouldn’t agree to Facebook submitting to some kind of a level playing field.

Facebook might be the most powerful corporation in the Internet age. But that doesn’t make them entirely invincible. It is time to start thinking about a possible breakup. If history does repeat, you would never know if Facebook’s breakup becomes a reality.

How many of you will be celebrating such an occasion? Time to spill the beans in the comments section below.

Image Credit: facebook conceptual phone – ThoughtCatalog

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