Editor’s Note: Douglas Rushkoff is a media theorist and author, most recently, of “Team Human,” published by W. W. Norton. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
If there’s one thing that seems to scare Mark Zuckerberg to the bone, it’s the threat of a functional government that represents the interests of its citizens. To him, government appears to be the faceless bureaucracy that slaps him on the wrist with a $5 billion fine when his company spies too much or too illegally on his users.
So when one of his employees asked him at an open meeting what he thought of Elizabeth Warren, Zuck was uncharacteristically candid – as if triggered by the mere thought of the possibility that someone with so much faith in the power of big government could become our chief executive. She “thinks the right answer is to break up the companies,” he said. And even though he believes he would win a legal battle against the US government, he added, “Does that still suck for us? Yes.”
Considering the company’s actions over the past couple of years, this is a battle Zuckerberg has been anticipating and preparing for. Ever since the suggestion of breaking up Facebook was raised at the infamous congressional hearings Zuckerberg underwent in April 2018, he has been effectively circling the wagons.
Facebook’s greatest vulnerability is the fact that it’s not just one company, but a collection of different platforms and technologies they’ve purchased over the years. Breaking them up is as simple as, well, separating out these acquisitions. That’s why his first move after Congress began asking questions was to integrate his various messaging platforms – Instagram, WhatsApp – into the Facebook platform. He argued that this was to offer greater interoperability and convenience. The real reason for such integration was to pre-empt any efforts to split up the company along its obvious fault lines.
Shortly after, Facebook announced it was going to launch a new cryptocurrency, already branded with a freedom-from-tyranny inspiring name, the “Libra.” It has been widely assumed that Facebook’s 2.4-billion user base would give the currency an instant edge over bitcoin and everybody else, perhaps even becoming a default global currency.
So, the new question becomes, will Zuckerberg peg the Libra on the dollar, supporting the United States’ role as the world’s most central banker? Or will the company base the Libra’s value on a commodity, a basket of currencies, or something else entirely? The mere suggestion of such plans gives Facebook leverage over the government that might undertake to control it.
Would Zuckerberg really think and act this way? Of course he would. After all, as he told his gathering of employees, he’s the one who sees this as a life-or-death battle: “At the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight.”
That’s actually a scary thought to me. Facebook screwed up our 2016 elections – and, arguably, civil society – by serving as the unintentional conduit for divisive propaganda from near and far.
In a 2018 blog post, Facebook detailed how it planned to better prepare for future elections, which included identifying and removing fake accounts. So Facebook will begin using its employees’ and AI’s “judgment” to determine what sorts of messaging is appropriate for us.
Imagine how much influence the platform could have if its founder really perceived one of the candidates as an existential threat. Do we want to see what an election looks like where Facebook is actively involved, fighting for its life?
What Zuckerberg doesn’t get is that Elizabeth Warren isn’t simply protecting America from Facebook, but Facebook from itself. While government is responsible for making sure companies don’t compete in unfair ways or infringe on people’s basic civil liberties, it is also responsible for providing businesses with safe monetary and legal systems through which to operate.
As Warren tweeted, “What would really ‘suck’ is if we don’t fix a corrupt system that lets giant companies like Facebook engage in illegal anticompetitive practices, stomp on consumer privacy rights, and repeatedly fumble their responsibility to protect our democracy.”
Breaking up Facebook is far from the worst thing that could happen to the company. That would likely play out like the brooms in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, where each piece of the company animates and grows into its own threat to privacy and democracy. Instead of being bitten by a single great white shark, we get consumed by a thousand piranhas.
No, the real nightmare for Zuckerberg is not being broken up, but being regulated. And the more Facebook integrates its various pieces into one big platform, the easier it will be to monitor, legislate and penalize.
Regulation may be less dramatic than a breakup, but it’s also more effective and ongoing. A living and perpetual responsibility. Facebook could grow so big and ubiquitous, it might even become a utility – publicly owned and operated.
With her penchant for big government and detailed plans, Elizabeth Warren may be the only candidate willing to finally parent and discipline petulant CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg, who too easily mistake corporate power for personal liberty.