The latest call to break up Facebook looks to be the most uncomfortably close to home yet for supreme leader, Mark Zuckerberg.
It’s a long read, but worth indulging for a well-articulated argument against the market-denting power of monopolies, shot through with a smattering of personal anecdotes about Hughes’ experience of Zuckerberg — who he at one point almost paints as “only human,” before shoulder-dropping into a straight thumbs-down that “it’s his very humanity that makes his unchecked power so problematic.”
The tl;dr of Hughes’ argument against Facebook/Zuckerberg being allowed to continue its/his reign of the internet knits together different strands of the techlash zeitgeist, linking Zuckerberg’s absolute influence over Facebook, and therefore over the unprecedented billions of people he can reach and behaviourally reprogram via content-sorting algorithms, to the crushing of innovation and startup competition; the crushing of consumer attention, choice and privacy, all hostage to relentless growth targets and an eyeball-demanding ad business model; the crushing control of speech that Zuckerberg — as Facebook’s absolute monarch — personally commands, with Hughes worrying it’s a power too potent for any one human to wield.
“Mark may never have a boss, but he needs to have some check on his power,” he writes. “The American government needs to do two things: break up Facebook’s monopoly and regulate the company to make it more accountable to the American people.”
His proposed solution is not just a break up of Facebook’s monopoly of online attention by re-separating Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — to try to reinvigorate a social arena it now inescapably owns — he also calls for U.S. policymakers to step up to the plate and regulate, suggesting an oversight agency is also essential to hold internet companies to account, and pointing to Europe’s recently toughened privacy framework, GDPR, as a start.
“Just breaking up Facebook is not enough. We need a new agency, empowered by Congress to regulate tech companies. Its first mandate should be to protect privacy,” he writes. “A landmark privacy bill in the United States should specify exactly what control Americans have over their digital information, require clearer disclosure to users and provide enough flexibility to the agency to exercise effective oversight over time. The agency should also be charged with guaranteeing basic interoperability across platforms.”
Once an equally fresh-faced co-founder of Facebook alongside his Harvard roommate, Hughes left Facebook in 2007, walking away with what would become eye-watering wealth — writing later that he made half a billion dollars, for three years’ work, off the back of Facebook’s 2012 IPO.
It’s harder to put a value on the relief Hughes must also feel, having exited the scandal-hit behemoth so early on — getting out before early missteps hardened into a cynical parade of privacy, security and trust failures that slowly, gradually yet inexorably snowballed into world-wide scandal — with the 2016 revelations about the extent of Kremlin-backed political disinformation lighting up the dark underbelly of Facebook ads.
Soon after, the Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal shone an equally dim light into similarly murky events on Facebook’s developer platform — some of which appeared to hit even closer to home. (Facebook had its own staff helping to target those political ads, and hired the co-founder of the company that had silently sucked out user data in order to sell manipulative political propaganda services to Cambridge Analytica.)
It’s clear now that Facebook’s privacy, security and trust failures are no accident; rather, they are chain-linked to Zuckerberg’s leadership, to his strategy of a never-ending sprint for relentless, bottomless growth — via what was once literally a stated policy of “domination.”
Hughes, meanwhile, dropped out — coming away from Facebook a very rich man and, if not entirely guilt-free given his own founding role in the saga, certainly lacking Zuckerberg-levels of indelible taint.
Though we can still wonder where his well-articulated concern, about how Facebook’s monopoly grip on markets and attention is massively and horribly denting the human universe, has been channelled prior to publishing this NYT op-ed — i.e. before rising alarm over Facebook’s impact on societies, democracies, human rights and people’s mental health scaled so disfiguringly into mainstream view.
Does he, perhaps, regret not penning a critical op-ed before Roger McNamee, an early Zuckerberg advisor with a far less substantial role in the whole drama, got his 20 cents in earlier this year — publishing a critical book, Zucked, which recounts his experience trying and failing to get Zuckerberg to turn the tanker and chart a less collaterally damaging course.
It’s certainly curious it has taken Hughes so long to come out of the woodwork and join the big techlash.
The NYT review of “Zucked” headlined it as an “anti-Facebook manifesto” — a descriptor that could apply equally to Hughes’ op-ed. And in an interview with TC back in February, McNamee — whose more limited connection to Zuckerberg Facebook has sought to dismiss — said of speaking out: “I may be the wrong messenger, but I don’t see a lot of other volunteers at the moment.”
Facebook certainly won’t be able to be so dismissive of Hughes’ critique, as a fellow co-founder. This is one Zuckerberg gut-punch that will both hurt and be harder to dodge. (We’ve asked Facebook if it has a response and will update if so.)
At the same time, hating on Facebook and Zuckerberg is almost fashionable these days — as the company’s consumer- and market-bending power has flipped its fortunes from winning friends and influencing people to turning frenemies into out-and-out haters and politically charged enemies.
Indeed, it’s former mentors, former colleagues, and now, of course, politicians and policymakers leading the charge and calling for the company to be broken up.
Seen from that angle, it’s a shame Hughes waited so long to add his two cents. It does risk him being labelled an opportunist — or, dare we say it, a techlash populist. (Some of us have been banging on about Facebook’s intrusive influence for years, so, er, welcome to the club Chris!)
Though, equally, he may have been trying to protect his historical friendship with Zuckerberg. (The op-ed begins with Hughes talking about the last time he saw Zuckerberg, in summer 2017, which it’s hard not to read as him tacitly acknowledging there likely won’t be any more personal visits after this bombshell.)
Hughes is also not alone in feeling he needs to bide his time to come out against Zuckerberg.
The WhatsApp founders, who jumped the Facebook mothership last year, kept their heads down and their mouths shut for years, despite a product philosophy that boiled down to “fuck ads” — only finally making their lack of love for their former employer’s ad-fuelled privacy incursions into WhatsApp clear post-exit from the belly of the beast — in their own subtle and not so subtle ways.
In their case they appear to have been mostly waiting for enough shares to vest. (Brian Acton did leave a bunch on the table.) But Hughes has been sitting on his money mountain for years.
Still, at least we finally have his critical — and rarer — account to add to the pile; a Facebook co-founder, who had remained close to Zuckerberg’s orbit, finally reaching for the unfriend button.
Update: In a response statement attributed to its VP of global affairs and communications, Nick Clegg, Facebook said:
Facebook accepts that with success comes accountability. But you don’t enforce accountability by calling for the breakup of a successful American company. Accountability of tech companies can only be achieved through the painstaking introduction of new rules for the internet. That is exactly what Mark Zuckerberg has called for. Indeed, he is meeting Government leaders this week to further that work.