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The campaign to break up Facebook

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May 21 · Issue #141 · View online
The Interface
Programming note: the premiere episode of my new podcast, Converge, arrives on Wednesday. Find it on Apple or Google, or wherever fine podcasts are sold! 
After an April filled with crises, the heat on Facebook died down substantially this month. The company announced a litany of changes to the service designed to address concerns around data privacy, and the news cycle moved on to more pressing matters. But a campaign announced over the weekend is threatening to drag concerns about Facebook back into the spotlight — this time over antitrust.
Most of us use Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger. They’re important ways for us to communicate and connect with each other.
But Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg have amassed a scary amount of power. Facebook unilaterally decides the news that billions of people around the world see every day. It buys up or bankrupts potential competitors to protect its monopoly, killing innovation and choice. It tracks us almost everywhere we go on the web and, through our smartphones, even where we go in the real world. It uses this intimate data hoard to figure out how to addict us and our children to its services. And then Facebook serves up everything about us to its true customers – virtually anyone willing to pay for the ability to convince us to buy, do, or believe something.
So says a letter from Freedom from Facebook, a coalition of progressive groups that includes Open Markets Institute, Demand Progress, MoveOn Civic Action, the Content Creators Coalition, Citizens Against Monopoly, Mpower Change, and Jewish Voice for Peace.
They’ve called for Facebook to spin off Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger into their own independent companies; let users on competing social networks easily communicate with one another; and implement stronger privacy protections.
Why now? At Axios, David McCabe has the context:
The push coincides with the start of a new era at the FTC under Chairman Joe Simons, who has expressed some willingness to take on tech but also appointed a lawyer who represented Facebook to a key consumer protection position. The agency is currently investigating whether Facebook violated a previous legal agreement as a result of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. Antitrust concerns have also been raised about Google and Amazon.
Some commissioners are likely sympathetic to taking big action on Big Tech. “FTC orders are not suggestions,” new Democratic Commissioner Rohit Chopra said earlier this month, with the questions about Facebook’s deal with the FTC looming.
On one hand, major antitrust legislation under the current administration feels like the longest of shots. To the extent that Trump is preoccupied with anything tech-related, it’s Amazon, and Facebook’s service has largely been a boon to his political career. 
On the other hand, this administration’s opinions can change …….. quickly. Consider the interview that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin gave to CNBC today following a segment about Google on 60 Minutes last night.
“These issues deserve to be reviewed carefully,” Mnuchin said in a CNBC interview early Monday in response to a question about the CBS News report. “These are issues the Justice Department needs to look at seriously, not for any one company, but as these technology companies have a greater and greater impact on the economy.”
It might not even take official antitrust action to spur Facebook to make major changes. The company wound up adopting most of the principles of the Honest Ads Act — making political ads available online, along with information about their buyers and the size of the campaign — despite the fact that it still has never had a hearing. Facebook is unusually responsive to public pressure compared to its big-tech peers, which is one reason groups like Freedom from Facebook deserve attention. (It’s also putting six figures into a marketing campaign to get the word out.)
One lesson of the past half-decade in social is that competition has benefited Facebook, rather than hinder it. Instagram’s resurgence in the past two years can be attributed largely to the rise of 24-hour ephemeral stories, a feature invented at Snapchat. The flagship app’s big bet on video came after the initial success of Periscope, created by Twitter, and YouTube, created by Google.
I can’t imagine Facebook being forced to spin out Messenger — it feels unthinkable that the US government would block Facebook from building a messaging infrastructure for its own social network. What is a social network, after all, if not a messaging infrastructure? But Instagram and WhatsApp have been independent before, and it’s a fun thought experiment to wonder what they might be like if they were independent again.  

Democracy
Antonio Tajani: Tuesday’s Zuckerberg meeting will be livestreamed
The Line Between Big Tech and Defense Work
Germany Acts to Tame Facebook, Learning From Its Own History of Hate
Germany's Attempt to Fix Facebook Is Backfiring
North Korea-tied hackers used Google Play and Facebook to infect defectors
From the GV Archives: Human Rights in the Facebook Era
Elsewhere
Predatory behavior runs rampant in Facebook’s addiction support groups
Facebook confirms mega-lease that enables Sunnyvale move
U.K. vs. U.S.: How Much of Your Personal Data Can You Get?
Is Capital or Labor Winning at Your Favorite Company? Introducing the Marx Ratio
Launches
Instagram says “you’re all caught up” in first time well spent feature
Facebook is teaming up with Qualcomm to work on high-speed wireless internet
Takes
Screwing Your Vocal Minority
And finally ...
Twitter for Android is getting its own emoji because of fragmentation
Talk to me
Questions? Comments? Suggested slogans for the Freedom from Facebook campaign? casey@theverge.com
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