I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook.
On the plus side, I adore being able to connect with people who have touched my life since I was a child…and to interact with, say, the folks at my gym who use a Facebook page to share exercise tips and recipes for protein smoothies.
What I don’t like is an ad policy that enables the spread of misinformation and hate… and the seemingly constant threat to my privacy.
I am torn.
And so I use it judiciously, block questionable posts, and wonder if there is a way to keep the social network “clean” so that it is off limits to those with bad intent.
It turns out I am not the only one having these thoughts.
Chris Hughes is one of the co-founders of Facebook, part of a small group of students at Harvard University who came up with the idea 15 years ago. He hasn’t worked at the company in a decade, but he firmly believes the online venture he helped launch has become, well, a monster.
In an essay he wrote this summer for the New York Times, Hughes said Facebook — now under the firm grip of his former college dormitory roommate Mark Zuckerberg — is, quite frankly, out of control.
“Mark’s personal reputation and the reputation of Facebook have taken a nose-dive,” he wrote, citing its loose privacy controls, its slow response to attempts by Russian agents to impact the 2016 US presidential election, and its ongoing efforts to create a social media “addiction” (my word, not his.)
He still has a soft spot for Zuckerberg, calling him a “good, kind person.” But Hughes wrote there is another side to the man behind Facebook.
“I’m angry that his focus on growth led him to sacrifice security and civility for clicks,” he said in his essay, adding “I’m disappointed in myself and the early Facebook team for not thinking more about how the News Feed algorithm could change our culture, influence elections and empower nationalist leaders.”
And with those words on the opinion page of a major newspaper, Chris Hughes became the human face of a crusade — a crusade to break up the social network.
Most people don’t know it — at least I didn’t — but Mark Zuckerberg and company actually control three communications platforms that billions of people use everyday. In addition to Facebook, they also own Instagram and the messaging service WhatsApp.
It’s a monopoly. And in this country, we have a history of breaking up monopolies. As Chris Hughes put it in the New York Times: “America was built on the idea that power should not be concentrated in any one person (or entity) because we are all fallible.”
Actually, there is a law stating just that.
The 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act – passed at a time when a handful of companies in the United States controlled the oil, railroad and banking industries — outlawed monopolies.
Now, it can be argued that the drafters of that law never envisioned anything like Facebook, let alone the internet. But critics argue this modern corporate behemoth is no different, that once again we have one company with insufficient accountability dominating an industry.
One part of the answer, according to Hughes and other critics, is to require Facebook to sell off Instagram and WhatsApp. Such a move would, theoretically, give consumers more choice and encourage entrepreneurs to create more platforms.
But more may be needed. The European Union is already moving to better enforce privacy protections, curtailing the ability of tech giants to store personal data and sell it to others. Similar rules are under consideration on this side of the Atlantic, but progress has been slow.
Hughes has been doing his part to encourage action by the U.S. Congress. In recent weeks, he has been a constant presence in Washington, along with a team of legal experts. They have been meeting with lawmakers and officials at the Justice Department and other agencies. This, as a congressional investigation of Facebook and other major players in the social media field picks up steam.
The Federal Trade Commission — the U.S. government agency that deals with both privacy protections and ensuring fair business practices — has also been looking into Facebook. It recently announced a settlement with the company in which it agreed to pay a $5 billion dollar fine. The deal also set the stage for greater scrutiny of company operations.
This is the largest penalty the United States has ever imposed on a private company for a privacy violation. As FTC Chairman Joe Simmons put it: “Facebook betrayed the trust of its users and deceived them about the ability to control their information.”
Mark Zuckerberg has promised changes at Facebook, and a new independent committee is being set up at the top of the company’s corporate structure to deal with privacy issues. But he remains firmly in control and some wonder if even a $5 billion fine is enough.
Facebook stock — despite the ups and downs of the market — is generally on the rise. Investors seem to think despite its problems it will continue to grow and dominate its market.
Chris Hughes knows the power of the social network only too well. When he left Facebook, he cashed in his stock and made a fortune. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why his arguments are gaining so much attention.
In the history of this nation, few people have been so intimately involved in building a company only to use their insider knowledge to break it down.
Chris Hughes, who once served as a spokesman for Facebook, has become its greatest problem.