Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Picture: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Picture: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS

New York — Chris Hughes, who co-founded Facebook with Mark Zuckerberg from their Harvard dorm room, says the company has become too powerful and influential and should be broken up.

“Mark’s power is unprecedented and unAmerican,” Hughes wrote on Thursday in an opinion piece in the New York Times. “It is time to break up Facebook.”

Hughes, who hasn’t worked at the social media company in more than 10 years, says Zuckerberg’s influence “is staggering, far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government”, and his focus on growth led the CEO to “sacrifice security and civility for clicks”.

Facebook and other giant technology companies have come under increasing scrutiny in the US and Europe for the sheer volume of personal data they have collected on people using their platforms. Recent controversies have focused on their vulnerability to manipulation and spreading “fake news”, as well as their use as forums for hate speech and fomenting violence.

US senator Elizabeth Warren, a presidential candidate, has already called for breaking up Facebook, Amazon and Alphabet, calling them anti-competitive behemoths that crowd out competition. Her proposal, released in March, is supported by senator Amy Klobuchar, another Democratic presidential candidate, who said the US has “a major monopoly problem”.

Warren’s proposal calls for legislation that would designate the companies as “platform utilities”, and proposes that some of the mergers, including Facebook’s purchases of WhatsApp and Instagram, be unwound, a move Hughes agrees with.

Hughes also proposes creating a new government agency to regulate technology and protect privacy. The US Federal Trade Commission, which has some oversight, is expected to slap Facebook with a fine of as much as $5bn soon as part of a settlement over privacy violations stemming from the Cambridge Analytica scandal last year.

Since Zuckerberg controls most of Facebook’s voting shares, the board works “more like an advisory committee,” Hughes writes, leaving it up to Zuckerberg alone to decide the algorithms behind Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

Zuckerberg has testified several times before Congress on issues of privacy and election meddling and spent much of last year apologising and vowing to restore trust with Facebook’s more than 2-billion users worldwide.

Hughes served as a spokesman for Facebook in its early days and left in 2007 to volunteer for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. He and other early Facebook founders didn’t foresee how the News Feed algorithm “could change our culture, influence elections and empower nationalist leaders”, he wrote. But now he says he feels “a sense of anger and responsibility”.

Now, the most problematic aspect of Facebook’s power is Zuckerberg’s “unilateral control over speech, ,Hughes says. “There is no precedent for his ability to monitor, organise and even censor the conversations of 2-billion people.”

Part of the problem is that there aren’t any real alternatives to Facebook. No major social media company has been founded since the fall of 2011, Hughes notes. “The company’s strategy was to beat every competitor in plain view, and regulators and the government tacitly — and at times explicitly — approved.”