Breaking up Facebook is getting traction in politics
A few years ago, it might have seemed unlikely that a disagreement about content moderation would be a memorable moment in the U.S. presidential debate. But amidst the techlash and a Twitter-happy American president, that’s exactly what happened earlier this week.
It was kind of an awkward moment in Westerville, Ohio, though, where Senator Kamala Harris pivoted from tech monopolies to talking about her crusade to ban Trump from Twitter. Here is a transcript of an exchange between Harris and Senator Elizabeth Warren, from the New York Times:
WARREN: So, look, I don’t just want to push Donald Trump off Twitter. I want to push him out of the White House. That’s our job.
HARRIS: Join me in saying that his Twitter account should be shut down.
WARREN: No. Let’s figure out —
This confusing exchange aside, there was a more substantive debate afoot on the stage about whether tech companies should, as monopolies, be broken up. Warren came out clearly in favor, while others were far more cautious. Another presidential candidate, Andrew Yang, himself a tech entrepreneur, offered perhaps the most interesting critique, calling Warren’s plan “a 20th century antitrust framework” that would not work today. (Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has also privately promised to fight attempts to break up Facebook.)
Amanda Lotz, media studies professor at Queensland University of Technology, made a similar point. Over email, she told me that recognizing Facebook has a monopoly doesn’t mean it should automatically be broken up.
“The nature of social media (they are most useful when “everyone” is there, or their network effects qualities) may make monopoly structures make sense,” she wrote in an email.
Instead, Lotz suggested allowing a monopoly, but regulating it, would make more sense.
“[The] U.S. has a long history of allowing monopolies, but they come with greater regulation…because there is no marketplace to regulate them,” she said. “Forcing Facebook to offer some sort of basic account that isn’t tracked might be one way; or create an expert privacy panel that reviews changes and what it does with its algorithm.”
Georgia Tech School of Public Policy professor Milton Mueller is also critical of plans to dismantle big tech monopolies. But he does see some merit in reversing previous mergers, like that of Facebook and WhatsApp.
“The idea of reversing critical mergers of Facebook (WhatsApp and Instagram) makes some sense. Because of network externalities, these social media platforms have become very concentrated,” he said in an email. “The problem, however, is that it is not clear what legal basis would be used to do it. Under existing antitrust laws, it is difficult to see what crime has been committed.”
Regardless of the policy outcome of these debates, the fact that presidential candidates are each finding their own way to be tough on tech companies suggests a shift in politicians’ attitudes to big tech.
“Since 2016 the platforms have become scapegoats and whipping boys. They are blamed for all of society’s evils,” wrote Mueller, who has been critical of the ongoing ‘techlash.’ “In this respect, ‘breaking up’ big tech becomes not a rational response to identifiable problems, but a kind of emotional lashing out, a punitive way of expressing their anger and frustration at the direction the Internet economy has taken.”