Two Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, faced questions about Facebook’s size and power Sunday following the publication of an op-ed by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who wrote Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been put into a position of “unprecedented and un-American” power. Hughes went on to explicitly call for the company to be broken up.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren has made it clear she is for breaking up the social media company. Booker and Harris have not gone as far, and have links to the tech industry Warren lacks; Booker has close political and financial ties to Silicon Valley, and Harris actually represents the industry center in Congress.
It has become clear that Facebook’s role will be a hot issue in the presidential campaign, and if Democrats win in 2020, a new Democratic administration would have a number of options to chose from when it comes to tech titans, from pushing for new regulations to working to break up current Silicon Valley giants.
In his piece, Hughes advocated for the latter option, in part because he believes regulations would not be enough to disrupt Facebook’s current ways of doing business.
“Facebook isn’t afraid of a few more rules,” Hughes wrote. “It’s afraid of an antitrust case and the kind of accountability that real government oversight would bring.”
Booker: Calling for Facebook’s breakup ‘sounds more like a Donald Trump thing’
Appearing on ABC’s This Week, Booker was asked about Hughes’s piece. Booker’s own background as a Stanford classmate of many of the modern Internet’s founding figures — and as someone who had friendly relations with Facebook and other companies in the pre-Trump era — puts him in a position of having to balance his personal relationships with the sorts of calls for change Hughes and Warren have added to political discourse.
Initially, Booker framed Facebook’s dominance as part of a wider issue of corporate consolidation across multiple sectors.
“I don’t care if it’s Facebook, the pharma industry, even the agricultural industry,” the senator said. “We’ve had a problem in America with corporate consolidation, that is having really ill effects. It’s driving out the independent family farmer. It’s driving up our prescription drug costs. And in the realm of technology, we’re seeing … one or two companies, controlling a significant amount of the online advertising.”
When pressed on the specific idea that Facebook should be broken up, Booker signaled he believes tech regulation ought to be a task shared by a number of agencies. Specifically, he said he would have the Justice Department pursue appropriate antitrust investigations, and hold industry accountable.
When asked about Warren’s proposal to break up tech giants, Booker said he is not completely in agreement with the idea.
“I don’t think that a president should be running around, pointing at companies and saying break them up without any kind of process here,” Booker said. “Do I think it is a massive problem in America, corporate consolidation? Absolutely. It’s about making sure that we have a system that works.”
He continued: “It’s not me and my own personal opinion about going after folks. That sounds more like a Donald Trump thing to say: I’m going to break up you guys, I’m gonna break – no.”
Jonathan Karl, who was conducting the interview, was clearly surprised, and responded, “You just compared Elizabeth Warren to Donald Trump.”
“I — I — I most certainly did not, she is my friend,” Booker said, before going on to add, “Let her discuss and debate her positions. I’m telling you right now, we do not need a president that is going to use their own personal beliefs and tell you which companies we should break up. We need a president that’s going to enforce antitrust laws in this country, and I will be that person.”
Harris: Facebook is a ‘utility that has gone unregulated’
Meanwhile, on CNN’s State of the Union, Harris (D-CA) — who was being interviewed not too far away from Silicon Valley itself, as host Jake Tapper noted — raised a possibility for a major regulatory change: Treating Facebook as a public utility.
”I think that Facebook has experienced massive growth, and has prioritized its growth over the best interests of its consumers — especially on the issue of privacy. There is no question in my mind that there needs to be serious regulation, and that has not been happing. There needs to be more oversight; that has not been happening.”
Sen. Kamala Harris says “Facebook has experienced massive growth and has prioritized its growth over the best interests of its consumers … It is essentially a utility that has gone unregulated.” #CNNSOTU pic.twitter.com/LADYpEaT7h
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) May 12, 2019
Harris declined to explicitly say that Facebook should be broken up, but she did say she remains open to exploring that possibility.
“I think we have to seriously take a look at that, yes. When you look at the issue, they’re essentially a utility,” Harris said. “There are very few people that can actually get by, and be involved in their communities and society, or in whatever their profession, without somehow, somewhere using Facebook. It’s very difficult for people to be engaged in any level of commerce without it. So, we have to recognize it for what it is: It is essentially a utility that has gone unregulated. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s got to stop.”
As presidential candidates discuss Facebook, the FTC is also debating what to do about the company
While Harris, Booker, and Warren have different theoretical approaches to dealing with Facebook, the FTC is wrestling with what to do with Facebook now.
The company is set to pay a fine of anywhere from $3 billion to $5 billion to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over its handling of user data and privacy violations in the wake of a scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, a data firm that worked for the Trump presidential campaign.
While the fine under consideration is incredibly large, it might not actually hurt a company of Facebook’s size. Not only can Facebook pay the money, but its stock price actually went up after the expected fine was revealed. Such fines can become a normal cost of doing business — and potentially provide a market benefit by getting rid of uncertainty.
Two of Harris, Booker, and Warren’s colleagues, Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Josh Hawley (R-MO), wrote a bipartisan letter to the FTC chairman last week, declaring that the fine under consideration is not enough, while arguing the commission needs to levy a more punishing fine that would send a message to Facebook and other tech companies. The letter also requested that concrete rules be put in place to restrict Facebook’s collection of data and sharing across its different platforms.
Blumenthal and Hawley further added ominously that individual executives such as Zuckerberg should be personally on the line for any future violations:
As important as remedies on Facebook as a company are, the FTC should impose tough accountability measures and penalties for individual executives and management responsible for violations of the consent order and for privacy failures. Personal responsibility must be recognized from the top of the corporate board down to the product development teams.
The FTC has been investigating Facebook for more than a year; it is not clear when it will make an announcement about the fine, although commissioners are expected to make a decision ahead of the 2020 election.