In the last two decades, few technology giants like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple have come to dominate the online market. With Facebook’s earnings being roughly the size of the GDP (gross domestic product) of the bottom 65 countries the harm goes beyond economics—it harms democracy itself. Such an empire like monopoly of technology giants strips people of power. Social networking is just like any other industry and Facebook dominates it. In turn, it has made the market devoid of healthy competition with Facebook either buying its rivals or making the market unsustainable for competitors.
This has led to several prominent politicians, lawmakers and privacy experts calling for the breakup of the company. In March, Senator Elizabeth Warren released an ambitious plan which called for the breakup of Facebook along with Amazon and Google. She called for Facebook to be separated from its two sister apps—WhatsApp and Instagram. This quickly became a campaign issue with other 2020 presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Tulsi Gabbard calling for the breakup of Facebook.
Many bipartisan party leaders have been unhappy with the US Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) proposed regulations with representative David Cicilline, Democrat of Rhode Island calling the fine no more than a “slap on the wrist for Facebook” and urged the US Congress to act. Several privacy experts and advocates have also expressed criticism at the potential FTC settlement clauses.
Lawmakers have called the idea of the privacy oversight board a step in the right direction, but say it needs more details. "The idea that there have to be structural changes is absolutely right, whether those structural changes are sufficient, remains to be seen,” said Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota added the Facebook settlement doesn’t eliminate the need for a national privacy law.
Some candidates have been more sceptical but without actually calling for a breakup of Facebook. Former US Vice-President Joe Biden told the Associated Press that breaking up Facebook is “something we should take a really hard look at.” Senator Kamala Harris echoed Biden’s sentiment and called the social media platform “essentially a utility that has gone unregulated.” Some candidates, especially those with close ties to Silicon Valley, have not embraced Warren’s plan and or even criticised it. Others like former Representative Beto O’Rourke have favoured regulation of Facebook over a breakup.
Candidates have also expressed support after Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes’ op-ed in the New York Times on May 9 called for the government to break up the social media giant. Hughes said he felt both angry and responsible for creating the monopolistic giant that is Facebook today. He reserved some of his strongest criticisms for Facebook’s monopoly over the social media industry, how it stifles the market, innovation and consumer choice. He says now is the time for the FTC to break up Facebook similar to the breakup of monopolies like Standard Oil and AT&T.
In a response to Hughes statement calling for Facebook’s breakup, the platform rejected the argument claiming in a Times op-ed that it was being punished for its success. “Success should not be penalised. Our success has given billions of people around the globe access to new ways of communicating with one another,” wrote Nick Clegg, vice-president for global affairs and communications for the company. The platform argues that the focus should instead be on regulating the internet.
Jeff Chester, executive director of the Centre for Digital Democracy said the privacy oversight board wasn’t sufficient, and that instead an independent board with no company representatives should approve the company’s data moves for the next five years. He said, “Mark Zuckerberg cannot be trusted to really do anything to protect the public.” If this method works, it could be extended to other platforms which could benefit from a similar oversight. If this partnership between Facebook and an independent oversight board is implemented thoughtfully it could lead a shift in not just how Facebook moderates itself, but in the underlying logic of moderation itself.
In its latest defence against the growing calls for its breakup, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, in an interview with CNBC pushed back claiming such a manoeuvre would disadvantage the platform against China. While this remark lands right in the middle of a US-China trade war, it holds no substance with respect to the argument being raised for Facebook’s dismantlement. Zuckerberg has, however, long sought access to the Chinese market, without success.
While a common solution to the problem of overly powerful companies is to break them up, many feel, it being an effective solution in the case of Facebook is doubtful. While it would reduce the amount of platforms the social media giant is able to harvest data from, Facebook’s core 1 billion user base would still allow it to be a powerful player in the market.
With the FTC settlement nearly around the corner, according to the managing partner at TechLegis Advocates & solicitors, Salman Waris, its impact from an Indian regulatory's perspective would be in that “such a move would help in better regulatory management and any legislative measures restricting data collection would have indirect impact in India as well and can be used to support similar measures here. In the US, the FTC is currently investigating Facebook’s handling of user data and potential privacy violations. The FTC has been investigating Facebook for more than a year now and looking into whether Facebook’s actions in the Cambridge Analytica scandal constituted a violation of a consent decree it reached with the FTC in 2011.
Experts believe that since the corporate structure of Facebook is rooted in the US, the responsibility of corporate accountability doesn’t reside in India. However, this could be temporary as India is one of Facebook’s largest growing markets.
The existing antitrust laws despite the increased antitrust scrutiny by the FTC and the US Justice Department makes the breakup of big tech like Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple unlikely, according to experts. However, if there is an re-imagination of antitrust laws within the current context the risk of breakup would rise precipitously. The question of regulating big tech would require many complicated manoeuvres which would help reduce its negative impact on not just the market but the functioning of democratic processes as well.