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Breaking up Facebook: Through the divide

Within the past several, eventful years, large-scale technological conglomerates, collectively known as the now-menacing “big tech,” have received rampant public criticism following years of nearly unquestioned loyalty and love by both the federal government and a multitude of daily users. 

Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal in March 2018, where the personal data of millions of Facebook users were collected, chiefly to be used for political advertising, and the Capital riots of this past January, the substance of which is still fresh in our hearts, the appeal of these companies, primarily Facebook, has dropped in both the eyes of the government and the people. This has resulted in cries for legislation, and, in this instance, cries for the breakup of Facebook.

The reasons many politicians, lawyers and consumers provide for breaking up Facebook—dividing the company into smaller, autonomous companies—are multitudinous. The primary reason, especially from a legal, antitrust perspective, is to promote fair competition within a market that is seemingly lacking such competition due to the size and power of companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple. When it comes to Facebook, a company that recently purchased both the popular photo-sharing app, Instagram, and the large-scale communication app, WhatsApp, certain parties believe that a separation would be beneficial to the users of Facebook. The argument usually follows that the parent company, Facebook, would now have to compete with its former companies WhatsApp and Instagram; this would presumably compel Facebook to improve its services from a user experience standpoint in order to profit and thus survive.

Breaking up Facebook has been championed by politicians including Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders; nevertheless, various concerns have arisen to challenge these ideas. One idea posits that following a normal separation of a larger conglomeration, a decrease in prices usually occurs. However, since Facebook is a free and unbelievably dependable service, it is possible that users would have to increasingly pay for services due to new companies struggling to survive in this new market. In addition, Facebook makes its profits almost solely from advertisement sales—a function WhatsApp has not been able to efficiently take part in. Thus, newly divided companies such as WhatsApp would be unable to survive, and this has catastrophic consequences for a global world that increasingly relies on instant and urgent communication through WhatsApp. 

Even though these pros and cons for breaking up Facebook are legitimate, neither solution would mend the problems inherent to social media and information technology. Neither solution recognizes that an impetus for a just information world does not reside in economic competition nor the lack of it. Problems of a pressing kind will continue to proliferate. Data security and privacy issues will still reign as rampant and uncontrollable, misinformation will continue to spread throughout these platforms, teenagers—and alas, children—will only continue to worry about issues that amplify their personal insecurities. Most importantly, individuals will only spend more and more of their lives on these platforms, numerous or not, devoting their time to inadvertently propagating the surveillance economic system that keeps these companies in a state of perplexing profit and in control of our world, our relationships and our very selves. 

This lack of true action, of change, is due precisely to the very nature of antitrust law, a sect of law that is not equipped to examine and enact legislation upon these information and communication companies. Commenting upon antitrust arguments in a New York Times article titled “The Coup We Are Not Talking About,” Shoshanna Zuboff, a praised thinker of information systems in the 21st century, states that “when it comes to defeating the epistemic coup, the antitrust paradigm falls short. A democratic information civilization cannot progress without new charters of epistemic rights that protect citizens from the massive-scale invasion and theft compelled by surveillance economics.” 

Antitrust law was meant to quell industrial monopolies of the 20th century, not surveillance monopolies whose services are free, immensely accessible and wildly pervasive in their effects and scope. Spreading the power of such monopolies or consolidating it will only strengthen or weaken these companies; such measures will not necessarily bring about peace and equality. The subjective and flawed human will still have to interact with the calculating and perfect technology; moreover, we will have to exist and interact in the same surveillance economy that profits on extracting the behavior of us humans. Only legislation that registers the true power and intelligence of these companies will be able to promote worthwhile change for the betterment of society and the individual. 

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