- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Democratic presidential hopeful Joseph R. Biden became the latest high-profile candidate to suggest a breakup of Facebook, suggesting a growing critical mass for taking some action to rein in online giants.

The calls reflect an unease with the power Facebook and other companies play in controlling information — both in what companies know about Americans, and what voters know about the political discourse.

Mr. Biden told the Associated Press that dismantling the big technology companies would be worth “a really hard look.” His comments came after Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder, took to the pages of the New York Times to argue that the power of Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg is “unprecedented and un-American.”

It’s not clear whether there’s a large bloc of voters ready to make Facebook politics a voting issue in either the primaries or the general election, but activists said the stance is part of a broader progressive conversation about corporate power.

“I think it absolutely is a litmus test for one of the most important qualities that the next president needs to have, which is, ‘are you willing to stand up to monopolies who now really dominate markets, from tech to health care to peanut butter?’” said Sarah Miller, deputy director of the Open Markets Institute, which highlights dangers of corporate consolidation.



Sen. Elizabeth Warren unveiled a plan in March to split up companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon. Sen. Kamala Harris, another 2020 contender, said in recent days it’s worth looking into whether Facebook should be broken up. Meanwhile Sen. Bernard Sanders praised Mr. Hughes’ recent warning about Facebook and Mr. Zuckerberg.

“We are living in an era of monopolies that dominate every aspect of our lives — including our government. It’s time to take that power back,” Mr. Sanders said on Twitter.

Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs and communications, fired back at Mr. Hughes in his own New York Times opinion piece, challenging claims that the company is a monopoly, noting among other things that its share of the online-ad market is just 20% and it’s smaller than several foreign social-media companies.

Facebook has been a popular target for both sides on Capitol Hill, with Republicans calling hearings to grill company executives for alleged political bias.

That makes restraining the company a potential area of bipartisan cooperation, and puts the issue on the front burner.

“If you had asked me 10 months ago, is this going to go away, I would say probably — especially in this political climate,” Ms. Miller said. “But I think at this point there’s no going back to where this is not a top issue in Washington.”

Neil Sroka, spokesman for liberal advocacy group Democracy for America, said it’s not yet on the level of policies such as the “Medicare for All” health care plan or the Green New Deal environmental overhaul.

“I don’t think breaking up Facebook specifically has reached that point yet,” Mr. Sroka said. “What I would say is that taking on corporate power is definitely a priority for the Democratic base, and perhaps breaking up Facebook would be part of that.”

He said the Facebook debate could also act as a proxy for many voters’ anger at the 2016 election.

“It has all these kind of nice dovetails with a host of different issues,” he said. “It could be one of those issues that does rise, like the opioid question in the 2016 election, where it kind of surprised many people how salient it was and how many times it got asked given where the conversation was prior to that point.”

Not all 2020 Democrats are ready to name and shame Facebook. Sen. Cory Booker said on ABC this week that while his administration would monitor corporate America, he doesn’t think a president should be calling for companies to be broken up without a process in place.

Ms. Miller called those comments “disingenuous.”

“I think Cory Booker didn’t want to offend Silicon Valley,” she said.

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