Facebook should be punished, not broken up

Commentary: Facebook screwed up. Big time. But breaking it up won't fix that.

CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.
The push to punish Facebook are getting serious.
Getty Images

There's a new clarion call in the tech industry: It's time to break up Facebook.

But it's not actually what people want.

What they ought to say is, "Let's punish Mark Zuckerberg."

These people are angry. I'm angry too. We're all angry. And with good reason.

Facebook, led by Zuckerberg, has seemingly made every major mistake possible in the tech industry. It not only failed to stop Russian interference campaigns in the US presidential elections in 2016, but Zuckerberg arrogantly dismissed our, and President Barack Obama's, concerns. Instead, Zuckerberg said it was "a pretty crazy idea," before apologizing a year later.

It failed to protect our privacy when app developers began sucking down the data of tens of millions of people, as we learned during last year's Cambridge Analytica scandal. It let the shooting in New Zealand at two mosques in March be broadcast live for 17 minutes, a recording of which is still spreading around the internet today.

And the company failed, spectacularly, to do the right thing in 2017, when it didn't stop propaganda campaigns by Myanmar's military from running on its social network. All those hateful posts and images, United Nations investigators said, played a "determining role" in the mass killings of a Muslim minority in that country. Let that soak in: Facebook's service played a significant role in a genocide, and the company barely lifted a finger to stop it.

It's no wonder the calls to break up Facebook are gathering steam. Frankly, I'm shocked it took so long.


Mark Zuckerberg has been under increasing pressure as Facebook's list of screwups grows.

James Martin/CNET

"We are a nation with a tradition of reining in monopolies, no matter how well-intentioned the leaders of these companies may be," Chris Hughes, Facebook co-founder and Zuckerberg's dorm roommate at Harvard University, wrote in a Thursday op-ed in The New York Times. Politicians rallied around him, including Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. "It's time to #BreakUpBigTech," Warren tweeted in response.

But let's not pretend that breaking up Facebook will make anything better.

Even if you take away Facebook's other social networks, the photo-sharing service Instagram, used by more than 1 billion people, and the text messaging service WhatsApp, with its 1.5 billion users, Facebook is still a behemoth. More than 2.38 billion people visit the social network every month, making its membership larger than the population of any country on Earth.

And Zuckerberg, 35, is its unelected leader, with unilateral control over the company and enough voting shares to stave off nearly any corporate coup. Breaking up Facebook "isn't going to do anything to help," Zuckerberg said in a response published Friday.

"People think a breakup is the right approach, but it often backfires," said David Balto, a former policy director for the Federal Trade Commission. He worked on the team that accused Microsoft of monopolistic practices two decades ago.

Back then, people were angry at the software giant for its aggressive, competitive ways. They were particularly upset that Microsoft bundled its Internet Explorer web browser with its Windows software, which powered most of the world's PCs. Though there was talk of breaking up Microsoft back then, it didn't happen.

"The more appropriate solution is establishing behavioral rules for the entire industry, rather than try to break up a single company," Balto added.

So let's stop pretending that leaving Zuckerberg with the consolation prize of running the biggest social network on the planet will be enough to satisfy us.

It's time to admit that what we really want is to see Zuckerberg punished. We want the buck to stop at his desk. We want the FTC's potential fine of up to $5 billion against Facebook (a mere 9% of the company's sales last year) to include him too. We want him to feel some of the pain we've seen him accidentally dole out to everyone else.

Facebook declined to make Zuckerberg available for an interview.

"There's a lot these companies should have reckoned with earlier," said Margaret O'Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington and author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America.

She likened the mood around tech companies these days to how we felt at the turn of the 20th century, before a major antitrust suit broke up Standard Oil. "Just as now, there was a lot of debate about how one can still support free enterprise and economic growth but yet reckon with some of the anti-competitive behavior, and things that could hurt consumers," she said.

A solution of sorts

The truth is that punishing Zuckerberg won't fix our problems either, no matter how cathartic it might seem.

Instead, Facebook needs to be better. And that's going to take work -- more than it seems capable of doing on its own.

It's going to require lawmakers around the world to bone up on how the tech industry works, instead of sliding by on laughably indefensible ignorance as they have in the past.

It's going to require government agencies to slap Facebook so hard when it screws up that its executives will worry more about screwing up again than following the now-abandoned motto, "Move fast and break things."

The hardest part, though, will be that it's going to require us, the people, to demand Facebook be better.

That will be the hardest bit of it all.

Because, after years of nonstop scandal, we're still telling Facebook it's OK.

We say it's OK every time we log in, helping Facebook continue growing its user base -- which is up more than 8 percent since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke last year.

We say it's OK every time we click an ad in our newsfeed, "like" something on Instagram or use Messenger to share a link to our friends.

That's why I agree with Hughes that something must be done. "If we do not take action, Facebook's monopoly will become even more entrenched," he wrote.

But breaking up Facebook won't do the job. We need to force the company to change. And we need to do it as soon as possible.