Taking a slice from the history of literature, only one line comes to mind after the recent events, “Et tu, Brute?“. However, the more specific line could be, “Et tu, Hughes?”. There is no better expression of friendly betrayal than this Shakespearean emotion. Even though not intended as an act of betrayal, as many are seeing it now, Chris Hughes’s brutal New York Times opinion essay on the remedies to deal with Facebook’s domination of social media is definitely surprising.
Christopher Hughes co-founded Facebook alongside his Harvard classmates and roommates Mark Zuckerberg, Dustin Moskovitz, Eduardo Saverin and Andrew McCollum in 2004. He has also served as a spokesman for the company in the past. He left Facebook and its workings way back in 2007, and so was not a part of either the very peak days of the company’s business nor the dreadful past couple of years that it has faced in the public domain. But this old friend of the company has sprung up recently, speaking against it. On the 9th of May, the New York Times published an opinion essay written by Chris, which was titled ‘It’s Time to Break Up Facebook’.
In this essay, Chris has addressed the recent issues of growing distrust of the public in the company and the various scandalous activities it has found itself a part of, including the 2016 Russian intervention in the US elections and the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal. The primary reasons for all the recent proceedings of the company, according to him, is the absolute monopoly that Facebook has over social media, both by itself and its acquisitions. Another layer to this problem that he identifies and breaks down in the power that Mark Zuckerberg governs at the company.
“Ever since he was developing the platform from the college dorm room, Mark’s main goal was not money-making but dominance.”, Chris wrote, “It was this dominance factor that made Facebook trounce its competitors back then.” Hughes claims that “Mark’s power is unprecedented and un-American” and that Facebook’s rampant acquisitions and copying have made it so dominant that it deters competition.
After presenting structured reasonings to all the problems leading up to the issues, Chris goes on to give a radical solution. He borrows from the title of his essay and proposes that regulators must break up Facebook’s operations and WhatsApp and Instagram be removed from under it. He adds to it by saying that this will not be a punishment for the gains that Facebook made, but instead make the social media arena more competitive. These independent companies will make the market even more divided and do their own unique stuff, something that led to their panic acquisition by Facebook in the first place.
If all of these big ideas weren’t enough to stir the pot at the company headquarters, he goes on and adds, “Mark is a good, kind person. But I’m angry that his focus on growth led him to sacrifice security and civility for clicks.” He adds that he felt the need to speak up as he felt responsible for everything bad that was going on, “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 I’m worried that Mark has surrounded himself with a team that reinforces his beliefs instead of challenging them.”
What Do These Ideas Mean?
A couple of very interesting and yet basic questions arise from whatever Hughes has suggested. First, do these solutions and ideas make sense? Yes, they do. Keeping in mind the reasoning and the history of the working of the company, it makes perfect sense that a step such as breaking up the company be feasible. Doing this helps destroy the control that Facebook exercises on the market. The second question is, will it solve all the problems? On a personal level, I do not think so. Even though competition does open up the contest to win public approval, it does not limit the functioning in any form. It may, in turn, lead to even bigger and more radical steps by Facebook to establish its control. Whether or not it leads to the downfall of the company, the damage would have already been done.
Mark Zuckerberg has also responded to this essay by his old friend. In a tone of someone who has tasted betrayal, the Facebook CEO said, “When I read what he wrote, my main reaction was that what he’s proposing that we do isn’t going to do anything to help solve those issues. So I think that if what you care about are democracy and elections, then you want a company like us to be able to invest billions of dollars per year like we are in building up really advanced tools to fight election interference.” His whole argument boils down to the fact that if such a division occurs, there would be not enough resources left with either of the parties involved to invest in better protection of the users’ data and that competition will take up all the resources.
Now, Chris Hughes isn’t the first one to suggest such an idea. Many experts of the tech world have given the same or similar working ideas in the past as a means of regulation which would make everyone’s jobs easier. More than laws and regulations, a check of sorts on power and monopoly. As Chris suggests in the essay, it has been done previously for bigger corporations from other industries. He is not even the first from former Team Facebook to show his deep concerns for the working of the company. But both of these factors have a huge weight purely due to the fact that it comes from a person who was a pivotal part in the making of this giant organisation. And for him to feel alienated with the very basic ideas of it, just shows Facebook’s position in the world right now.
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