This year, a startling revelation has come to light for many on all sides of politics about our civic life: companies like Facebook and Google have huge influence over public discourse in the United States.
Only by the whims of a handful of senior executives is equal opportunity for discourse maintained for all. Figures like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey have more power to silence dissent in America than the government does.
Open, public, discourse is vital to the health of a Republic. With control over the most common and best means of communication to an audience, they hold the fate of public debate in their hands.
All sides in American politics recognizes this situation now. The side that supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election wants these corporations to use “fake news” as a pretext to place voices critical of their argument at a disadvantage. They want to ban “hateful” speech. The side that supported Donald Trump wants the chance to engage on equal footing.
This is not a first amendment issue. It is an issue that speaks to the very foundations of what it means to live in a Republic. The free exchange of ideas should not be surrendered to the government nor should they be surrendered to corporate oligarchs.
This is why companies like Facebook should be broken up into parts using anti-trust.
The question remains: how could a company like Facebook actually be split up?
The first and easiest thing to do would be to spin off Facebook owned, but still fairly separated enterprises like Instagram, Oculus, and WhatsApp.
Breaking up the rest of Facebook into its constituent parts seems difficult, but I believe it is entirely possible.
The core of Facebook would remain. Profiles, friends lists, timelines and news feeds would remain under one roof.
This is the part of Facebook that has a monopoly. Everything else Facebook does leverages its power in this area to put themselves ahead of potential competitors.
Facebook leverages its social network to give it an advantage against other businesses (or potential businesses) who specialize in messenger software, image hosting, online event invitations, ad platforms, news curation, or live video.
Facebook’s ad platform should function as its own independent company. It would serve as a middleman between ad hosting sites and ad buyers. It would probably contract with its old parent company for user data and to provide its ads. It would also be free to make similar arrangements with other companies.
Facebook’s news curation would become its own small company. It would also contract with Facebook and other social networks for user data and then sell trending news lists to other entities.
One thing that shows how easily Facebook could be broken up is its app-driven setup. Photos and Events can easily be broken off and turned into apps operated by their own companies.
Splitting off all of these enterprises would make it easier for new businesses to build better versions of Facebook’s components and allow them to compete on equal footing.
It would also allow for new social networks to get started more easily by contracting with the spinoff organizations for top-tier components for their website.
Splitting up Facebook would encourage more interoperability between web services and allow for more competition to flourish in social applications.
The most probable outcome is for social networks to become akin to operating systems with independent applications operating over it rather than monolithic platforms.
Ideally, the core of Facebook would sell access to an API that allowed third parties to create better interfaces to the core social network.
This would remove the undue influence Facebook executives hold over free expression by making potential Facebook control mechanisms, ads and new curation, survive on their own merits as well as give them independent leadership.
Timeline filtering, moderation, advertisement punishments and news curation bias would all still be possible, but increasing competitive pressures will make it harder to justify and easier for users to move away from.
This would not stifle innovation. Zuckerberg’s core idea is maintained in a single company. All of the other bits could have been Zuckerberg-funded start-ups with Facebook as first customer. Instead, additional projects and ideas were commissioned to be a part of Facebook and engrained in such a way as to stifle competition.
Breaking up Facebook in this way is a good move in the interests of promoting innovation and competition on the web. More importantly, it prevents the creation of a corporate oligarchy capable of exerting undue influence on the cornerstone of the American idea: the free exchange of ideas.