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Facebook’s co-founder: ‘It’s time to break up Facebook’

Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, called for the breakup of the social media network as well as more competition and regulation in the industry. (Video: Reuters)
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Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, is calling for the breakup of the social media juggernaut, citing the threat of the platform’s unchecked power and that of its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg.

In an op-ed published Thursday in the New York Times, Hughes joined the growing chorus of lawmakers and advocates demanding the U.S. government rein in Facebook. Despite its myriad scandals — Russian propagandists exploiting the platform to spread misinformation and sway U.S. elections, the sharing of millions of users’ personal data with the political data firm Cambridge Analytica and companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Netflix — Facebook’s reach continues to grow.

“For too long, lawmakers have marveled at Facebook’s explosive growth and overlooked their responsibility to ensure Americans are protected and markets are competitive,” Hughes wrote. “It is time to break up Facebook.”

Facebook rejected this argument in a statement Thursday afternoon, suggesting that regulation of the Internet — as Zuckerberg called for in a March op-ed published in The Post — was the only thing that would bring real accountability.

“Facebook accepts that with success comes accountability. But you don’t enforce accountability by calling for the breakup of a successful American company,” Nick Clegg, vice president of global affairs and communications, said in a statement. “Accountability of tech companies can only be achieved through the painstaking introduction of new rules for the Internet.”

Hughes’s calls come as Facebook faces yet another controversy: An investigation by the Associated Press revealed that the platform automatically generates videos and pages that elevate extremist groups.

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The op-ed painted a stark portrait of Facebook’s dominance: The company is worth a half-trillion dollars and its products are regularly used by billions of people. By Hughes’s estimates, Facebook commands “more than 80 percent of the world’s social networking revenue.”

Hughes and Zuckerberg co-founded Facebook with Eduardo Saverin and Dustin Moskovitz in 2004 while they were enrolled at Harvard University, an origin story famously chronicled in the Oscar-winning film, “The Social Network.” All are now billionaires save Hughes, whose fortune has been estimated at $430 million.

Another major social networking platform hasn’t been founded since 2011, and despite movements like #deleteFacebook, it’s almost impossible to avoid, with many people eschewing the core platform in favor of Instagram or WhatsApp, not realizing they are Facebook subsidiaries. The apparent avalanche of disasters hasn’t dented Facebook’s finances; its earnings per share increased 40 percent last year.

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“Because Facebook so dominates social networking, it faces no market-based accountability,” Hughes wrote. “This means that every time Facebook messes up, we repeat an exhausting pattern: first outrage, then disappointment, and finally, resignation.”

No aspect of Facebook is more troubling than Zuckerberg’s total authority, Hughes wrote, calling it “unprecedented and un-American.” Zuckerberg controls 60 percent of the company’s voting shares and has ultimate oversight over Facebook’s algorithms, its privacy settings and community guidelines. He has the money and power to copy, buy, or squash his competitors. Though Hughes defended Zuckerberg as a “good, kind person,” he cast him as a man hellbent on domination.

"I’m angry that his focus on growth led him to sacrifice security and civility for clicks,” Hughes wrote.

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Facebook’s monopoly is stifling innovation and economic growth, Hughes argued, citing the 20th century breakups of Standard Oil and AT&T by the Department of Justice as examples of effective government intervention. The shift toward business-friendly policies in the ensuing years has eroded antitrust enforcement, Hughes wrote, at the expense of entrepreneurship, productivity and consumer health.

Hughes wants the government to correct the Federal Trade Commission’s “biggest mistake” by forcing Instagram and WhatsApp to split from Facebook and become competitors once again. He also wants the government to create an agency to monitor tech companies and ensure healthy regulation. Zuckerberg himself has publicly invited regulation, but Hughes maintains Zuckerberg is interested only in regulation that is “friendly” to Facebook’s interests.

Former Facebook CSO Alex Stamos believes Facebook's privacy pivot is Mark Zuckerberg's way of calling everyone's bluff. "It allows him to disclaim responsibility. He’s calling the bluff. Everybody’s saying we want privacy, so he’s saying, 'Great. We’ll give you privacy.'" (Video: Washington Post Live)

“Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech, and frankly I agree,” Zuckerberg wrote in his op-ed. He also cited privacy, data protection and election integrity as other areas in need of government oversight.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle have made a case for federal intervention with Facebook. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has made the breakup of American tech giants a pillar of her presidential campaign.

“Today’s big tech companies have too much power — over our economy, our society & our democracy,” Warren said in a tweet Thursday. “They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private info for profit, hurt small businesses & stifled innovation.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has said he’d hit tech companies with antitrust violations or fraud charges, arguing they unfairly censor right-leaning speech. This week, two top senators urged the FTC to go beyond its expected $5 billion fine against Facebook for its privacy practices, calling for tough punishments and accountability measures.

“The public is rightly asking whether Facebook is too big to be held accountable,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) wrote in a letter to FTC Chairman Joseph Simons. “The FTC must set a resounding precedent that is heard by Facebook and any other tech company that disregards the law in a rapacious quest for growth.”