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Democrats keep piling on Facebook

Programming note: I'll be on assignment next week, and I'm planning to do just one midweek newsletter
May 16 · Issue #331 · View online
The Interface
Programming note: I’ll be on assignment next week, and I’m planning to do just one midweek newsletter. I know I just took time off for jury duty, and I’m sorry to be once again leaving you a little light in the social networks and democracy department. But one of the goals of this newsletter is to use what I learn here to drive my reporting elsewhere — to turn tips into trips! And once again you all are sending me on an adventure. I look forward to sharing my reporting with you in this space soon.
On Monday I noted here a growing consensus among Democratic presidential candidates that Big Tech in general, and Facebook specifically, should perhaps be broken up. Sen. Kamala Harris said “we have to seriously take a look” at breaking up Facebook. Joe Biden said a breakup of Big Tech is “something we should take a really hard look at.” And you’re likely familiar with the plan of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who led the pack in this regard.
Today, three more developments on that front.
One, Sen. Bernie Sanders has now signed on to Warren’s plan. Makena Kelly reports in The Verge:
On Capitol Hill yesterday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a Democratic frontrunner, told Politico that he supports his colleague and presidential competitor Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) calls to break up Facebook. When asked about her proposal for antitrust action against the social media company, Sanders said, “The answer is yes of course.”
“We have a monopolistic — an increasingly monopolistic society where you have a handful of very large corporations having much too much power over consumers,” Sanders continued.
The story notes that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who has also declared her candidacy, has endorsed Warren as well.
Two, Pete Buttigieg — Facebook’s 287th user, no big deal — agrees that the company has too much power. He spoke positively about the op-ed published last week by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes arguing for a breakup, Casey Tolan reports in the San Jose Mercury News:
Buttigieg said Hughes, his former Harvard classmate, “made a very convincing case” that no company “should have the type of power that… these tech companies have.”
But unlike Sen. Elizabeth Warren, he hasn’t endorsed breaking up the tech giants, instead suggesting “a spectrum” of regulation that could include fines, blocking new mergers or splitting up companies. That’s attracted criticism from some on the left who want the candidates to take a strong stance on issues of corporate power.
It’s notable how early in the Democratic primary we are getting a referendum over Big Tech. Candidates’ answers so far have found along a spectrum. On one side you have Warren, Sanders, and Gabbard, who want to see a wholesale breakup of Facebook. In the middle you have Biden, Harris, Buttigieg, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who have expressed some support for a breakup but stopped short of endorsing a breakup. And over by his lonesome you have Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who told ABC News: “I don’t think that a president should be running around, pointing at companies and saying breaking them up without any kind of process here.”
Still, in the same interview, Booker spoke of the ills of “corporate consolidation,” and pledged to investigate. What no Democratic candidate has said, at least that I’m aware of, is that tech companies have an appropriate level of power, are adequately regulated, and remain at their current size. The consensus has formed early in the primary, and it is firmly against tech monopolies — Facebook in particular.
So who is making the case for Facebook? Well, one such person is Nicola Mendelsohn, who is Facebook’s vice president for the EMEA region. She made her case in a Bloomberg Television interview Thursday:
“I don’t know why a company should be broken up because it’s popular,” Nicola Mendelsohn, vice president for the EMEA region, said in a Bloomberg Television interview Thursday. “If you look we’ve made huge investments in the area of safety, in the area of privacy and election interference.”
This was from a relatively short interview, and Mendelsohn got only a couple of questions about regulation. She went on to say that some of regulators’ concerns appeared to be more about the nature of the internet generally than Facebook specifically.
Still, I’m not sure this will be a winning argument for Facebook in the long run. At least in America, politicians aren’t talking about breaking up Facebook because it’s “popular.” Rather, they’re talking about a breakup because for the past several years, the platform has seemed to generate new society-level problems faster than it can clean them up.
In such a world, it’s not enough to say that the company is “making progress,” as it so often does. Facebook has to make an affirmative case that it’s good for the world — that we benefit more from Facebook’s existence than Facebook does. Otherwise, by the time the Democratic presidential debates roll around, I expect we’ll see fewer candidates expressing Booker’s view, and more who are echoing Warren.

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And finally ...
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