Facebook will take it “to the mat and fight”. This is what CEO Mark Zuckerberg said about any potential legal challenge from the government to break it up.
These comments, found in a leaked audio recording from a Facebook staff meeting in July, are the cause of the latest round of outrage and consternation about the social network which is mired in controversy about its negligence with personal privacy after the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Speaking about plans from presidential hopeful Senator Elizabeth Warren to break up Big Tech, Zuckerberg said a legal challenge from the US government would “suck for us”.
Tech-savvy Warren tweeted back: “what would really ‘suck’ is if we don’t fix a corrupt system that lets giant companies like Facebook engage in illegal anti-competitive practices, stomp on consumer privacy rights, and repeatedly fumble their responsibility to protect our democracy”.
It’s hard to disagree with her. Facebook may be in the midst of a turnaround in its focus, by “pivoting to privacy” and away from its free-for-all news feed, but it’s not going to get out of this battle unscathed. Already the US Justice Department, various Congress committees, the Federal Trade Commission and the attorneys general of most US states are investigating it for anti-competitive practises. Facebook is not alone in this, with Amazon, Apple and Google also being examined as part of some 18 different investigations in the US – and numerous others by the more aggressive European privacy watchdogs.
Last week Casey Newton at online publication The Verge ran the transcript of Zuckerberg’s war talk: “You have someone like Elizabeth Warren who thinks that the right answer is to break up the companies … if she gets elected president, then I would bet that we will have a legal challenge, and I would bet that we will win the legal challenge. And does that still suck for us? Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to have a major lawsuit against our own government. … But look, at the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight.”
Warren responded with some clear-eyed points of her own, about why it would “really suck”. Grab your popcorn, this presidential election is going to be as much about Facebook as the last one was – albeit for different reasons.
It’s hard to disagree that Facebook, with 2.41bn monthly active users but only 1.59bn daily users, isn’t a monopoly with three other billion-plus services, WhatsApp (with 1.6bn), Facebook Messenger (1.3bn) and Instagram (1bn). Zuckerberg’s stated intention to merge all three with end-to-end encryption, ostensibly so that every user can communicate with everyone, is widely seen as an attempt to prevent a breakup.
That strategy might backfire. Last week there were already rumblings from the US government which wants a backdoor into that encryption to monitor for terrorist or criminal activity. Not only would such a backdoor weaken the security of encryption, as well as defeating the point of secure communication, but it will push those criminals – and child pornographers – into using other services.
Facebook is in a no-win situation with its new plans to merge all its communications services.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail