/New litmus test for White House hopefuls: Breaking up Facebook

New litmus test for White House hopefuls: Breaking up Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks in San Jose, California, last month. 2020 Democrats have staked out an array of positions on whether to break up tech giants. | Amy Osborne/AFP/Getty Images

2020 Elections

Democratic officials for years embraced liberal-leaning Silicon Valley executives as staunch political allies and donors.

Democratic presidential candidates are scrambling to respond to growing calls to break up big tech companies like Facebook — a sign of the shifting headwinds for Silicon Valley in a party that once eagerly embraced the internet industry.

In the latest sign of the new dynamics, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) ratcheted up her anti-tech rhetoric in an interview Sunday with CNN. When asked whether Facebook should be broken up, she said, “We have to seriously take a look at that.”

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“I think that Facebook has experienced massive growth and has prioritized its growth over the best interests of its consumers, especially on the issue of privacy,” she said.

The remarks come just days after Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes wrote in a New York Times op-ed that the social network is a “monopoly” and should be forced to shed Instagram and WhatsApp — two blockbuster acquisitions from recent years.

That tough stance from such a high-ranking former Facebook insider threw fuel on a debate that’s been growing in the Democratic Party since Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), another 2020 candidate, issued a sweeping proposal to break up companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google, which she said have “bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit and tilted the playing field against everyone else.”

Sen. Cory Booker (D-Mass.), a longtime ally to Silicon Valley, has himself grown increasingly critical of tech companies’ power since declaring his run for the White House. But in an interview with ABC on Sunday, he made clear he is not a fan of Warren’s plan, calling it reminiscent of something the current occupant of the Oval Office might say.

“I don’t think that a president should be running around pointing at companies and saying breaking them up without any kind of process here,” Booker said. “It’s not me and my own personal opinion about going after folks. That sounds more like a Donald Trump thing to say, ‘I’m going to break up you guys.’”

Warren laid down the first major marker on tech and antitrust on the 2020 campaign trail in March, calling for Facebook, Google and Amazon to be designated as “platform utilities” and broken apart from their own services that compete on those platforms.

Since then, other 2020 Democrats have staked out an array of positions on whether to break up the tech giants, from offering full-throated support for that idea to issuing more moderate calls for greater scrutiny of the industry.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) praised Hughes, the Facebook co-founder, in a tweet Friday for “sounding the alarm on the dangers of unchecked corporate power,” writing, “We are living in an era of monopolies that dominate every aspect of our lives — including our government. It’s time to take that power back.”

But Sanders stopped short of calling for the firm to be broken up. His office did not respond to a request for comment last week on his specific stance on that.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), another progressive lawmaker running for the White House, expressed support for the Warren proposal, vowing to introduce “similar legislation” in the House. But most other 2020 hopefuls have been hesitant to fully embrace the breakup mantra, opting instead to call for investigations into possible anticompetitive behavior in the sector.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said in March she wouldn’t “just come in and say break this up, break that up,” but backed efforts to “supercharge” antitrust enforcement agencies and “change the standards” for what is considered anticompetitive behavior.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, meanwhile, currently the Democratic front-runner in a number of 2020 polls, has yet to publicly weigh in on Warren’s plan or on whether to break up firms like Facebook.

Democratic officials for years embraced liberal-leaning Silicon Valley executives as staunch political allies and donors, and celebrated the industry’s rapid growth and expansion.

But the relationship has soured amid a litany of tech scandals over foreign election meddling on social media, data privacy and hate speech online, with many Democrats now openly calling for a new regulatory approach toward the sector.

Facebook has become a focus for much of the ire in Washington, with lawmakers of both parties calling for the company to be held accountable for a series of damaging privacy flaps. The social network is negotiating a potential record-setting settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, which has been probing the Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

On Sunday, Facebook’s top policy executive, Vice President for Global Affairs and Communications Nick Clegg, fired back at calls by Hughes and others to break up the firm.

“I don’t think dismantling companies is the way to deal with some of the complex issues which he quite rightly highlighted, data use, privacy, the attempt by folk from elsewhere to try and interfere in our elections,” he told CNN. “[C]hopping a great American success story into bits is not something that’s going to make those problems go away.”

Clegg has gone on the defensive in recent days, authoring his own New York Times op-ed over the weekend that argued that breaking up Facebook “won’t fix what’s wrong with social media.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who co-founded the company along with Hughes, recently laid out a new “privacy-oriented” vision for the company, which includes an emphasis on encrypted communications. But skeptics, including Hughes, warn that the pivot could make it harder for regulators to spin off WhatsApp and Instagram, which Facebook plans to integrate more with its signature social network.

“Until recently, WhatsApp and Instagram were administered as independent platforms inside the parent company, so that should make the process easier,” Hughes wrote. “But time is of the essence: Facebook is working quickly to integrate the three, which would make it harder for the F.T.C. to split them up.”

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