Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who started the social media giant 15 years ago with fellow Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg, says it's time to break up the company, arguing it has become a "powerful monopoly" that is harming innovation, reducing privacy and enabling hate speech and nationalist leaders. 

 

"Mark's power is unprecedented and un-American," Hughes wrote Thursday in an editorial in The New York Times. "It is time to break up Facebook." 

His suggestion: Regulators should force Facebook to spin off Instagram and WhatsApp into separate businesses, and bar Facebook from acquisitions for several years.

"Facebook would have a brief period to spin off the Instagram and WhatsApp businesses, and the three would become distinct companies, most likely publicly traded," Hughes writes. "Facebook shareholders would initially hold stock in the new companies, although Mark and other executives would probably be required to divest their management shares."

The call to break up the social media giant comes after a year-long series of scandals and revelations about Facebook's privacy issues and shortfalls. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the social network allowed the political consulting firm to collect data from millions of users without their knowledge, may result in a fine from U.S. regulators as large as $5 billion, although Hughes argues it isn't enough. 

"After Mark's congressional testimony last year, there should have been calls for him to truly reckon with his mistakes," Hughes writes. "We are a nation with a tradition of reining in monopolies, no matter how well intentioned the leaders of these companies may be."

Lack of innovation

Hughes argues Facebook's monopolistic control of social media is harming innovation and doesn't provide a benefit for the public good. Because Facebook secures $4 out of every $5 in social media revenue, by Hughes' reckoning, there's little incentive for investors to back other social media start-ups. 

"Investors realize that if a company gets traction, Facebook will copy its innovations, shut it down or acquire it for a relatively modest sum," he points out. "No major social networking company has been founded since the fall of 2011."

Facebook's chief spokesman, Nick Clegg, offered the following response to Hughes' call for a corporate breakup: "Facebook accepts that with success comes accountability. But you don't enforce accountability by calling for the break up of a successful American company. Accountability of tech companies can only be achieved through the painstaking introduction of new rules for the internet. That is exactly what Mark Zuckerberg has called for. Indeed, he is meeting government leaders this week to further that work." 

Hughes likened Facebook's control of social media to AT&T's monopoly on the phone business -- and its breakup in the 1980s, widely considered a success. The end of the phone monopoly ushered in decades of innovation in the phone industry, spawning new companies and technologies. 

"We would most likely not have iPhones or laptops without the competitive markets that antitrust action ushered in," Hughes writes.

Consumers would also benefit by having alternatives to Facebook, an issue that became apparent after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, when many consumers vowed to quit the social media service in protest. "They don't have any meaningful alternative," Hughes notes. "In the end people did not leave the company's platforms en masse. After all, where would they go?"