Facebook once again got negative headlines last week. This time, it wasn't because of anything the company had actually done (at least lately) but because of co-founder Chris Hughes' very public call for the federal government to break up Facebook. This could be accomplished, Hughes wrote in a lengthy New York Times op-ed, by retroactively outlawing the company's purchases of WhatsApp and Instagram.

I believe that Hughes is sincere and well-meaning and that he wrote his op-ed with the best intentions. But it was a silly suggestion. And chances are he'll only succeed in widening Facebook's power. Here's why:

Hughes says Facebook could be broken up by enforcing existing antitrust laws intended to prevent large companies from buying up their competitors and thus becoming monopolies. He's certainly right that Facebook's purchases of WhatsApp and Instagram are helping the company do just that. And those acquisitions ensure Facebook's dominance of social media decades into the future. WhatsApp is the biggest social network outside the United States, where social media adoption is growing faster than it is domestically. And Instagram is the social network of choice for teenagers

But as Hughes himself notes, since the 1970s, economists and policymakers have been pushing the notion that free markets are more efficient than governments and should be left to their own devices. As a result, Hughes writes, "By the mid-1980s, they had largely managed to relegate energetic antitrust enforcement to the history books." The last big company to be broken up under antitrust law was AT&T in 1982.

That breakup benefited consumers, Hughes argues, and he's probably right. But, whether they're good or bad, the era of federal antitrust lawsuits is over. It had its last gasp in 2001, when the Justice Department sued Microsoft for predatory practices, resulting in the unbundling of Internet Explorer that was previously automatically installed as part of Windows. The chances of the Donald Trump administration--which has been consistently anti-regulation--ramping up antitrust enforcement now are zero.

A tough case to win.

Even if the government brought an antitrust suit against Facebook and sought to undo its purchases of WhatsApp and Instagram, the chances of winning that suit are very small. As Bill Kovacic, a professor at George Washington Law School explains in a follow-up Times story, both the acquired social networks were much smaller when Facebook bought them than they are now. Facebook could thus argue that it built WhatsApp and Instagram into the serious players they are today. Hughes seems to be "dramatically underestimating" how hard it would be to win a case like that, he said.

OK, so maybe the government won't break up Facebook. But given the company's disproportionately huge power, what's wrong with Hughes calling for it to be broken up? Or, for that matter, for Mark Zuckerberg to call for increased government regulation of all social media companies, as he has repeatedly done both before and after Hughes' op-ed appeared? 

Because it gives us users permission to stop worrying about Facebook's power over their lives and the news items they see, as well as the huge amount of personal data the company possesses because they may now think it's the government's job, not ours, to do something about it. 

Whatever Hughes, or Zuckerberg, or you or I believe should happen, the government is not going to break up or otherwise regulate Facebook or other social network companies any time soon. So it's up to us as users to try to control Facebook ourselves, or at least lessen the power it has over each of us by limiting the personal information we share and by carefully fact-checking any news items we find there. We can't just wait for elected officials to do something about Facebook's outsize influence over all our lives. We have to do something about it for ourselves.

Published on: May 14, 2019
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