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Facebook co-founder says it's time for the government to break up the tech giant

“I feel a sense of anger and responsibility,” Chris Hughes wrote, who worked on the first News Feed team.

Chris Hughes, the co-founder of Facebook, delivers a speech in Montreal (2011).
Chris Hughes, the co-founder of Facebook, delivers a speech in Montreal (2011).
Image: Paul Chiasson

CHRIS HUGHES, THE co-founder of Facebook, has said that he feels “angry and responsible” about Facebook’s mistakes, and that he thinks the company should be broken up by the US government in an effort to fix them.

Writing in the New York Times, Hughes says that since 2017, the reputation of Facebook has “taken a nosedive”.

“The company’s mistakes – the sloppy privacy practices that dropped tens of millions of users’ data into a political consulting firm’s lap; the slow response to Russian agents, violent rhetoric and fake news; and the unbounded drive to capture ever more of our time and attention – dominate the headlines.”

Facebook has been at the heart of a number of scandals over the past few years: accused of being used as a tool to spread hate speech (in Myanmar during the Rohingya persecution), disinformation and to manipulate voters during elections and referendums through sponsored, targeted advertising where the source of the political message isn’t clear (a major fear for the upcoming European elections). 

Facebook was also accused of compromising its users’ data, after it was revealed that the personal details tens of millions of Facebook users worldwide was hijacked by Cambridge Analytica as it worked for US President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.

“It’s been 15 years since I co-founded Facebook at Harvard, and I haven’t worked at the company in a decade. But I feel a sense of anger and responsibility,” Hughes wrote today.

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.

Facebook’s News Feed has been criticised for only promoting the type of content that users have already expressed an interest in, creating a bubble where users are blocked from reading about issues or opinions that they haven’t been previously exposed to.

Ironically, Hughes adds: “And I’m worried that Mark [Zuckerberg] has surrounded himself with a team that reinforces his beliefs instead of challenging them.”

Chris Hughes was on the original News Feed team (his name is on the patent).

As a solution, Hughes says “it is time [that the government] break up Facebook”.

He said that it was a mistake of regulators to allow Facebook to acquire Instagram and WhatsApp, adding that neither had any meaningful revenue but were “incredibly popular”. 

Now, the founders of Instagram and WhatsApp have left the company after clashing with Mark over his management of their platforms. But their former properties remain Facebook’s, driving much of its recent growth.

He suggests that Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram should be broken up into three distinct companies “most likely publicly traded”.

He also suggests that a new US agency is required, empowered by Congress, to regulate tech companies, and praised the EU’s GDPR privacy protections.

Facebook’s business model is built on capturing as much of our attention as possible to encourage people to create and share more information about who they are and who they want to be. We pay for Facebook with our data and our attention, and by either measure it doesn’t come cheap.

Hughes also says that Zuckerberg has huge power to control the direction Facebook takes, and that the US government should hold him accountable when things go wrong.

Mark may never have a boss, but he needs to have some check on his power. 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.

“Mark Zuckerberg cannot fix Facebook, but our government can.”

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