Public Pressure to Break Up Facebook Intensifies, But Will It Work?

A group of nine privacy and anti-monopoly advocacy groups, led by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, have called on the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to break up Facebook. Citing the tech company’s long track record of ignoring privacy concerns, the group also called on the FTC to fine Facebook as much as $2 billion and to regulate Facebook like a public utility rather than a private tech company. At the same time, the group is launching an extensive digital ad campaign called “Freedom From Facebook” that will run on all digital platforms not controlled by Facebook.

What the plan to break up Facebook looks like

The privacy and anti-monopoly groups suggested that Facebook break up into four different entities – Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. This would also force Facebook to “disgorge” any data acquired from those companies. Thus, if the break up plan is carried out, Facebook would only have access to data from its customers from one platform, not from multiple platforms. This would prevent Facebook from stitching together user profiles based on data collected from multiple different social media platforms. For example, right now, Facebook can theoretically combine data from WhatsApp with data from Instagram in order to create super-targeted ads for the same user on Facebook. If the “break up Facebook” initiative works, that would no longer be possible.

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While there might be public support for the plan to break up Facebook, it’s less certain if the U.S. government is ready to take the next steps. Due to the prolonged, 35-day government shutdown, the U.S. FTC is just now getting back to work in 2019, and has thus far signaled that a breakup is an antitrust remedy, not a privacy remedy. In other words, it’s not up to the FTC to break up Facebook solely on the basis of privacy concerns and a past history of data breaches – it would require proof that Facebook had monopoly-like power over social media.

Moreover, the U.S. Department of Justice has thus far sent mixed signals about what to do about Google, Facebook and other big tech giants from Silicon Valley. The Justice Department under the Trump Administration has taken a much more hands-off approach to regulation and heavy-handed regulatory actions, including the recent case involving Net Neutrality. Even a huge super-merger (the proposed Sprint and T-Mobile deal) has thus far shown no signs of being delayed or reversed based on anti-competitive grounds, so if that huge telecom behemoth is not being forced to split into two companies, why would the U.S. government try to break up Facebook?

At a recent public event in Washington, for example, the Assistant Attorney General, Makan Delrahim, suggested that, “You can’t revoke the decisions of 2012 based on the facts of 2019.” What he had in mind here was the $1 billion acquisition of Instagram by Facebook back in 2012. While Delrahim admits that, in hindsight, that deal maybe should not have been allowed to happen, you can’t go back and “un-do” the deal now. In fact, Delrahim suggested that the call to break up Facebook would be handled much like a call to break up Google (i.e. force Google to give up YouTube) – there simply is not enough legal and regulatory standing to make it happen. As long as there is competition in the marketplace, and as long as the barriers to entry are not unnecessarily high, it’s hard to break up Facebook purely on anti-monopoly grounds and antitrust law, the way the U.S. government under Teddy Roosevelt forced Standard Oil to break up into 34 different companies.


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