Co-Founder Chris Hughes Says It's Time To Break Up Facebook
NOEL KING, HOST:
Facebook has dealt with a lot of controversy in the past couple years. There was the scandal over a political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, getting access to users' private information. There was the spread of misinformation directly linked to Russian interference in the 2016 election. And so this company's reputation has taken a real hit. Co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was called to testify in front of Congress last year.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARK ZUCKERBERG: Our position is not that regulation is bad. I think the Internet is so important in people's lives and it's getting more important, the expectations on Internet companies and technology companies overall are growing. And I think the real question is, what is the right framework for this, not should there be one?
KING: On the line with me now is Chris Hughes. He co-founded Facebook with Mark Zuckerberg. He left the company in 2007. And in a New York Times op-ed out this morning, he says Facebook should be broken up. Good morning, Chris.
CHRIS HUGHES: Thanks for having me.
KING: Calling for a company like Facebook to be broken up is not a small thing, as you well know. Why did you write this op-ed?
HUGHES: Well, I think that the Facebook that we have today in 2019 is not the Facebook that we started in 2004. What used to be a little startup, a story of American entrepreneurship, has become a leviathan. I mean, the company is worth nearly half a trillion dollars. And most importantly, Mark Zuckerberg is unaccountable. He's unaccountable to his shareholders. He's unaccountable to his users, and he's unaccountable to government. And I think that that's fundamentally un-American. And I think government should step up, break up the company and regulate it.
KING: In order to break up the company, the company would have to be designated a monopoly. Now, you call Facebook a monopoly several times in the op-ed. The U.S. government notably has not. Why not?
HUGHES: Well, I don't think there's much question that Facebook is a monopoly. I mean, by really any number or any stat that you look at, Facebook totally dominates the social networking space. Of every dollar that's spent on ads and social networking, 84% goes to Facebook. If you look at the time spent on the site, you know, the average user spending an hour on Facebook and another 53 minutes on Instagram, not to mention what they're spending on WhatsApp.
So there are small other competitors, but they pale in comparison. They're tiny compared to what Facebook has become. And listen; we've had a long tradition of seeing monopolies grow in power. And in some sense, there's nothing wrong with the hustle of Mark or the entrepreneur to build a great business. The problem is is when they get so big that they stifle other competition, freeze the market and prevent innovation and, really, the kind of security that Americans deserve.
KING: You're fundamentally making an anti-trust argument.
HUGHES: That's right. Yeah. I think a - it's not just Facebook. It's across tech but also across the American economy. We have seen fewer and fewer companies get bigger and bigger over the past 20 years. You know, three-quarters of American industries are more concentrated today than they were 20 years ago. And it's, you know, everything from beer companies to rental cars to pharmaceuticals, airlines, social networks, you name it.
And I think this is a real problem. It's a problem because consumers are struggling with the rising cost of living. I think it's a real problem because there's less power in the political system. And if you go industry by industry, there's less choice. And so we're talking today about Facebook because it's what I know. It's been my own story. But this is a much bigger problem than just Facebook.
KING: Let's say the government does break up Facebook. These issues around the platform's model, how it accesses users' personal information for profit, for advertising, the spread of misinformation - you break up Facebook, say, then you've got three or four Facebooks. Does that really solve the problem?
HUGHES: Well, I think you need two things. First, you need real competition in social networking. The problem is right now every time there's another Facebook scandal, there's a moment of outrage. Then there's some disappointment, and then there's mass resignation because there's nowhere else to go.
I mean, we saw last year, there was a huge delete Facebook movement where everyone was trying to leave the platform, and then Facebook reported its numbers at the end of the year. Turns out, people don't have anywhere to go. And I had friends of my own who said, oh, thank God for Instagram - not realizing that Instagram is actually part of Facebook. So first off, I think you need competition as a way of holding the company accountable and providing real alternatives that consumers can move to.
I don't think, though, that that on its own is enough. You also need to regulate Facebook and other companies like it. We do it for pharmaceuticals with the FDA. We do it for airlines with the FAA. We do it with the financial industry. Across the board, we realize that when industries grow so, so large, we need a baseline of security, a baseline of protection for American consumers. And I think we should have the same thing for technology.
KING: Can I ask you for a simple regulation that you'd call on lawmakers to implement?
HUGHES: Well, there are several. I think creating a privacy structure that ensures that people not only have control of their data but that companies have a responsibility, a legal responsibility, to keep it safe is first. But another is the right to take your stuff with you. You know, right now, if you tried to leave Facebook, a lot of people would say, gosh, I could never do that. There are so many photos there. There's so many - so many moments I've shared. All my friends are there.
Well, it's actually possible to package that data up and enable you to export it and import it into a competing social network. Now, that comes with its own set of privacy concerns. And there are important things to iron out. But I think that kind of right of interoperability, if you will, should be the kind of thing that we're guaranteeing to consumers and Americans.
KING: You did work for Facebook for a couple of years. You co-founded it. You did make a lot of money. Do you have some responsibility here?
HUGHES: I do. And that's a big reason why I'm writing the piece today. I have watched, particularly after the 2016 election and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, all of this news come week after week, it feels like. And I haven't been in the company in over a decade, but I do feel a sense of responsibility for a lot of this stuff. You know, I'm disappointed in myself.
I was on the original patent for news feed, what you see when you log into Facebook. And we did not really think about how it might be used by nationalist leaders or others to manipulate political discourse. So - but I think at the end of day, there's a sense of accountability that we need to see for Facebook and for other companies like it. And so that's why I'm speaking out now.
KING: Chris Hughes co-founded Facebook, currently the co-chairman of the Economic Security Project. Chris, thank you so much for joining us.
HUGHES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.