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2020 Candidates Spar Over Facebook, Big Tech Monopolies

(Photos: Cory Booker by Senate Democrats, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren by Gage Skidmore)
(Photos: Cory Booker by Senate Democrats, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren by Gage Skidmore)

“America was built on the idea that power should not be concentrated in any one person, because we are all fallible.”

After Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes published a New York Times op-ed calling to break up his former company, Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker faced questions about their views on Hughes’ piece and tech regulation on Sunday. Harris described Facebook as a “utility that has gone unregulated,” while Booker criticized Sen. Warren, a strident critic of big tech, for her proposal to break up Facebook in a Sunday interview with ABC’s This Week:

“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. Do I think it is a massive problem in America, corporate consolidation? Absolutely. It’s about making sure that we have a system that works. It’s not me and my own personal opinion about going after folks. That sounds more like a Donald Trump thing to say: I’m going to break up you guys, I’m gonna break – no.”

Facebook Regulation Should Be Managed by Multiple Agencies

After the interviewer pressed Booker for comparing Warren to President Trump, Booker explained that Warren is his friend, but that “we do not need a president that is going to use their own personal beliefs and tell you which companies we should break up.”

Sen. Booker said tech regulation should be managed by multiple agencies rather than the executive, with the Department of Justice handling antitrust violations. Booker’s stance could be influenced by his notable ties to the internet industry, which has given him half a million in donations over his five years in the Senate.

Senator Harris took a stronger position than Sen. Booker in a Sunday interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, but did not go as far as Sen. Warren in explicitly calling for Facebook to be broken up. When asked about breaking it up, she said, “I think we have to seriously take a look at that,” arguing “Facebook has experienced massive growth and has prioritized its growth over the best interests of its consumers, especially on privacy.” Harris said there needs to be more oversight of the company, because, “it is essentially a utility that has gone unregulated.”

Zuckerberg’s Power ‘Un-American,’ Hughes Says

Hughes wrote that Mark Zuckerberg is a “good, kind person,” but the power he now wields is not only unprecedented, but un-American:

“America was built on the idea that power should not be concentrated in any one person, because we are all fallible. That’s why the founders created a system of checks and balances. They didn’t need to foresee the rise of Facebook to understand the threat that gargantuan companies would pose to democracy. Jefferson and Madison were voracious readers of Adam Smith, who believed that monopolies prevent the competition that spurs innovation and leads to economic growth.”

Hughes pointed to Facebook’s consolidation of Instagram and WhatsApp as a turning point in the social media giant’s total domination of the market, with the founders of both companies stepping down over disagreements with Zuckerberg in recent years. Hughes noted the company’s market dominance, with far more users than any other social media platform. Zuckerberg’s ownership of around 60 percent of voting shares grants him near-unilateral authority on decision making, another concern raised by Hughes.

Zuckerberg, who was visiting France’s President Macron when Hughes’ op-ed was published, told the French president that two of his former colleagues’ proposed solution wasn’t the best manner of dealing with the underlying problem. “If what you care about is democracy and elections, then you want a company like us to invest billions of dollars a year, like we are, in building up really advanced tools to fight election interference,” Zuckerberg said, in reference to Russia’s disinformation campaign on his platform during the 2016 election.

The Federal Trade Commission has been investigating Facebook for over a year after the Cambridge Analytica scandal compromised the personal information of millions of users, and is expected to levy a $3-5 billion fine on the company before the 2020 election. As Vox explains, even a fine of that magnitude fails to hurt a corporation of Facebook’s size, as its stock price actually surged after the expected fine was revealed, due to the removal of uncertainty in the market.

In his op-ed, Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes argued, “Facebook isn’t afraid of a few more rules,” and fines won’t be enough to change its behavior. Instead, “it’s afraid of an antitrust case and the kind of accountability that real government oversight would bring.” With major 2020 Democratic hopefuls offering different approaches to big tech regulation, it will likely be a major topic when the candidates meet on the debate stage later this year.

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a freelance writer with a Master’s degree in International Conflict Resolution. He has traveled throughout the Middle East and Latin America to gain firsthand insight in some of the world’s most troubled areas, and he plans on publishing his first book in 2019.

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