Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Here is my Latest.

Are companies like Facebook monopolies, utilities, or simply private tech companies working to make a buck like everyone else?

Once upon a time, communication companies like the American Bell Telephone Company, which pioneered readily available communications by phone, were labeled utilities, accompanied with the usual and customary regulations. The company was considered a monopoly as early as 1913 when the they agreed to the Kingsbury Commitment after the Federal government’s anti-trust challenge. The commitment implemented restrictions on then named AT&T, including breaking up portions of the company.

Fast forward in time to Facebook, a social media platform used by over 2 billion users. As a communications mechanism, is Facebook then a utility to be regulated? Internet companies believe that they can self-regulate, but also have welcomed “input” from Congress during public hearings.

One presidential contender, Elizabeth Warren, contends that Facebook is a “platform utility.” She is calling for breaking up companies like Facebook, and for implementing strict regulations, particularly with regards to data sharing. Warren further said that companies like Facebook can “use the Internet to squash small businesses and innovation and substitute their own financial interests for the broader interests of the American people.” Even one of Facebook’s co-founders, Chris Hughes, is now advocating breaking up Facebook.

I would agree that, when companies become so big and powerful, other’s innovation will never see the light of day without some government oversight. I am against government control of private industry, but support the critical need for the government to play the role of referee in the private sector. Facebook’s size and power has allowed them to make millions off the use and misuse of its users’ private data for example. Only the government can step in to take corrective action in such cases.

On their website Facebook describes what they do as follows; “Founded in 2004, Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.” Arguably, in most cases, what they say is true. The problem is that the platform is just as effective for the fringes to connect with others that sow hatred, want to destroy communities and commit mass murder.

The continued use of Facebook by individuals and groups to promote hatred and violence has earned them sharp criticism from all sides, and their efforts to stem such behavior on their platform have been considered inadequate at best. Recently, Facebook took the more extreme step of banning individuals considered “dangerous” from their platform. As a private company, they are within their rights to do so, but as a “platform utility,” should they be the ones deciding on acceptable speech?

The long-term ramifications of future government action regarding these vast internet companies is unfathomable. The saying goes that with great power comes great responsibility. I believe that Zuckerberg and his team were more than ready for achieving great power (and wealth). The great responsibility part, not so much.

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