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Facebook spent the weekend on the defensive as its top brass tried to convince critics that breaking up the company would not solve the privacy and disinformation challenges straining the social network.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg told a French news outlet Friday while he was traveling in Paris that antitrust action “isn’t going to do anything to help solve those issues. So I think that if what you care about is democracy and elections, then you want a company like us to be able to invest billions of dollars per year like we are in building up really advanced tools to fight election interference.”
A day later, Nick Clegg, Facebook vice president for global affairs and communications, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times where he made the case that it’s time for new regulations governing social media and greater oversight — not dismantling the company, which owns Instagram and WhatsApp.
“Facebook shouldn’t be broken up — but it does need to be held to account,” Clegg wrote. “Anyone worried about the challenges we face in an online world should look at getting the rules of the internet right, not dismantling successful American companies.”
Facebook exec. @nick_clegg responds to calls to break up the company: "I don't think dismantling companies is the way to deal with complex issues."— CNN (@CNN) May 12, 2019
"Chopping a great American success story into bits isn't suddenly going to make those problems go away." https://t.co/f1YpcxWQBk pic.twitter.com/rOmwAzpngz
Facebook's call for regulation rang hollow with its critics, especially after more than a year of repeated privacy and safety incidents have exposed how the company deflected scrutiny from policymakers in times of crisis. Facebook’s detractors say the company is right that new regulations are needed — but that they should be in addition to, not in place, of a breakup.
From Jason Kint, chief executive of Digital Content Next, a trade group representing the digial content industry:
Facebook, you’re trying to shift rather than accept accountability. 1) If it weren’t for your surveillance dominance, you wouldn’t have been able to lower your privacy standards, raise ad prices, cover-up scandal, obfuscated and ignored major lawmakers. https://t.co/8ee2lLOmdi— Jason Kint (@jason_kint) May 11, 2019
Matthew Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, which pushes for increased antitrust enforcement, said:
I'm hearing a lot of people saying things like 'just breaking up Facebook won't solve the blah blah blah.' Yes, we know. Read more than a headline. Break up and regulate. Let's have multiple car companies. Let's also have seatbelt mandates. Break up and regulate.— Matt Stoller (@matthewstoller) May 12, 2019
Alex Stamos, a former Facebook chief security officer, noted that there can be legitimate arguments for breaking up Facebook, but at the same time, it may not fix all of the underlying problems facing social media:
I think these things can all be true:— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) May 9, 2019
1) There are legitimate competition arguments for breaking up FB.
2) Breaking up FB does not magically solve the underlying problems.
3) This issue highlights fundamental contradictions in left-ish criticism of tech. https://t.co/cL7h1bm0i2
Facebook officials leapt into action after the social network's co-founder Chris Hughes wrote a scalding op-ed last weel in the New York Times reigniting debate over the company’s power and influence over democratic institutions. Hughes argued in his piece that unwinding Facebook's acquisitions Instagram and WhatsApp is the only way to hold the company to account, largely because it has plenty of resources to comply with fines or new rules that policymakers levy against it.
The call was preceded by ones from Democrats running for the White House in 2020, most prominently Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Others like Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) have followed. Yesterday, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said he wouldn't go that far, however.
“I think we have to seriously take a look at that (breaking up Facebook), yes,” Harris said in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. She said very few people can get by in their communities, business or commerce without somehow using Facebook. “So we have to recognize it for what it is. It is essentially a utility that has gone unregulated.”
The op-ed follows more than a year of political headaches for Facebook, which has been increasingly in Washington's sights since the 2016 election. The company has faced scrutiny for disinformation campaigns targeting voters on its service, as well as repeated privacy issues. The Federal Trade Commission is currently probing the company for privacy lapses that may have broken a previous agreement made with Facebook. Facebook recently told investors it set aside billions of dollars for a fine. But many critics say Washington needs to do more than just fine the company in order to send a strong message to all of Silicon Valley.
BITS: Booker, a 2020 presidential candidate with deep ties to Silicon Valley, struck a more cautious note than his rivals on breaking up big companies like Facebook, according to a report from my colleague Robert Costa.
“I don’t care if it’s Facebook, the pharma industry, even the agricultural industry. We’ve had a problem in America with corporate consolidation that is having really ill effects,” the New Jersey Democrat said on ABC News’s “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos.
But, Booker added, “I don’t think that a president should be running around pointing at companies and saying breaking them up without any kind of process here. 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.’ "
Booker, who worked with Zuckerberg on a $100 million plan to overhaul Newark schools when he was the city's mayor, said he would instead encourage the Justice Department to take the lead.
Booker's more measured tone stands in contrast to Harris, another candidate backed by Silicon Valley insiders, and Sen. Warren, who made breaking up Big Tech one of her campaign's key policy proposals earlier this year.
NIBBLES: A crop of websites and social media accounts linked to Russia or far-right groups are blasting disinformation ahead of critical elections for the European Parliament, according to Matt Apuzzo and Adam Satariano of the New York Times. E.U. investigators, academic and advocacy groups say the efforts share tactics used in previous Russian operations, such as the spread of disinformation ahead of the 2016 U.S. elections.
“Fringe political commentary sites in Italy, for instance, bear the same electronic signatures as pro-Kremlin websites, while a pair of German political groups share servers used by the Russian hackers who attacked the Democratic National Committee,” Apuzzo and Satariano write.
The Times reporters note the findings underscore that despite efforts among U.S. tech companies to combat disinformation, it's still easier to spread it than stop it. The researchers found that especially on the far right, copycats are imitating the Russian playbook. Because these groups can repeat pro-Kremlin talking points, it's difficult to determine whether the false information emanates from Russia, the far right or genuine political debate.
While there are uncertainties about to whom to who to attribute this disinformation, it's clear that divisive stories about the European Union, NATO and conspiracy theories such as those about the Notre Dame cathedral fires are proliferating on services like Facebook, its subsidiary WhatsApp, and Twitter.
“The goal here is bigger than any one election,” Daniel Jones, a former F.B.I. analyst and Senate investigator, told the Times. “It is to constantly divide, increase distrust and undermine our faith in institutions and democracy itself. They’re working to destroy everything that was built post-World War II.”
BYTES: Facebook says it wants to signal that it is cracking down on app developers that violate its privacy policies, my colleague Tony Romm reports. The company on Friday said it sued a South Korean analytics company that may have mishandled users' personal information.
The lawsuit, filed in a San Mateo, Calif., court, targets Rankwave, a company that offered at least 30 apps to consumers and businesses. Facebook says Rankwave may have improperly obtained comments or other data from pages it operated “for its own business purposes,” possibly with the goal of “providing consulting services to advertisers and marketing companies.”
Facebook said Rankwave wouldn't comply with the social network's investigation into the matter, ignoring questions about whether it violated Facebook's rules and shared the data with other clients. Rankwave denied the allegations in February, according to the filing, but Facebook says it never provided sufficient proof.
Facebook is increasingly pursuing litigation against developers that it believes are breaking its rules. This year, the social network sued a New Zealand-based company that it says attempted to sell fake likes on its subsidiary Instagram.
“By filing the lawsuit, we are sending a message to developers that Facebook is serious about enforcing our policies, including requiring developers to cooperate with us during an investigation,” Jessica Romero, the director of platform enforcement and litigation at Facebook, wrote in a blog post.
Emailed late Friday, Rankwave in South Korea did not immediately respond.
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