Facebook and other social media companies face intense criticism from both the right and left these days, but the biggest threat to giants like Facebook, Amazon and Google may be increasingly diverse coalitions led by progressives that are renewing a push to break up big tech monopolies.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Rep. Mondaire Jones, a Democrat on the House Judiciary’s anti-trust subcommittee, are expected to announced a new push to break up Facebook and Google this week alongside Freedom From Facebook and Google, a growing coalition of advocacy groups that argues the companies are two of the world’s “most dangerous monopolies.”
Warren campaigned for president on breaking up big tech, and advocates see the senator as key to pushing the Biden administration to enforce anti-trust regulations and Congress to write new rules. Democratic members of the anti-trust subcommittee released a groundbreaking report last year with a number of ideas for breaking up big tech companies and updating anti-trust regulations for digital commerce after years of allowing tech corporations to grow into alleged monopolies.
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“We’re seeing an unprecedented level of momentum within the federal government — and at the state level, as well — to address the power that these platforms have and the harms that they are causing to democracy and to civil rights,” said Morgan Harper, director of advocacy and policy at the American Economic Liberties Project, in an interview. “You have to address the business model to also address the harms these platforms are causing.”
Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed a bill on Monday supposedly targeting “censorship” of political candidates by social media platforms, but the new law was quickly panned by critics and legal experts as a show of loyalty to former President Trump that has little chance of holding up in court. Trump was permanently banned from Twitter and his Facebook account was suspended for lying about the election he lost and stoking violence after a mob of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
While conservatives accuse Facebook of “censoring” them as the company attempts to clamp down on misinformation, progressives say the company is not doing enough to prevent overtly racist messages and violent conspiracy theories from proliferating on its platform. However, for progressives, this issue is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the mammoth social media company, which also owns the Instagram and WhatsApp platforms.
On Tuesday, a separate coalition of progressive watchdog and media justice groups released a litany of 70 public complaints against Facebook. The complaints range from mass surveillance and alleged privacy violations that feed the company’s targeted advertising schemes to the silencing of Palestinian activists critical of the Israeli occupation. Like Google and Amazon, critics say Facebook has raced to secure monopoly power over its respective markets by developing “predatory” business practices that harvest user data for profit and leave minorities open to discrimination online.
The list represents a broad range of grievances from various ideological interests, but they agree broadly that Facebook’s own efforts to appease critics have not gone far enough, because profit remains the company’s top priority. For example, the groups say Facebook has intentionally amplified racist, sexist, antisemitic and ageist messages and disinformation because they boost engagement — a far cry from the right’s complaints about censorship. The business model of “surveillance capitalism,” they argue, is simply incompatible with human rights and democracy.
“Now, instead of being a tool for social movements fighting for justice and liberation, Facebook has become a machine used to advance tyranny, corruption, and greed,” said Evan Greer, an organizer with the digital justice group Fight for the Future, in a statement. “By using algorithms that are optimized to generate ad revenue, they amplify some of the worst content on the internet, while at the same time actively silencing and suppressing the voices of marginalized people, activists, artists and creators.”
The coalition, which also includes groups, such as Accountable Tech and Data for Black Lives, is calling on Congress to breakup Facebook into smaller companies and write regulation that “forces Big Tech companies to find a new business model that does not rely on intrusive surveillance of users,” according to Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen.
“Facebook’s ongoing operations, let alone expansionist designs, are incompatible with the functioning of a democratic society,” Weissman said in a statement on Tuesday as activists delivered the complaints to Facebook. “The company has too much political power, too much surveillance capacity, too little regard for its users, too little respect for communities of color and oppressed groups around the world, and far, far too little self-restraint.”
Facebook gets a lot of attention for its outsize role in the social media universe and a seemingly endless stream of political controversy, but activists and anti-trust lawyers are also moving to break up Google and Amazon, which are also alleged monopolies that control vast swaths of the internet. If Congress writes anti-trust legislation with Facebook in mind, the rules would likely also apply to other tech giants that squeeze out competition and use data surveillance to generate massive profits.
The fight has already made its way into the courts. On Tuesday, the Washington, D.C. attorney general’s office filed an anti-trust lawsuit against Amazon alleging the e-commerce giant unlawfully maintains monopoly power by preventing independent sellers from offering their products at lower prices on other platforms, according to The Verge. Google faces multiple anti-trust lawsuits over its alleged dominance of the search engine business, including a lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice in October.
The big tech industry is clearly aware of the growing movement to hold it accountable. In March, Public Citizen reported that Facebook and Amazon are now the biggest individual corporate lobbying spenders in the United States, surpassing traditional lobbying powerhouses such as tobacco firms and fossil fuel producers. (The analysis looks at individual companies and excludes trade groups that aggregate lobbying spending for the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, for example.)
During the 2020 election cycle, big tech companies spent a collective $124 million on lobbying and campaign contributions, more than ever before. Amazon’s spending increased by 30 percent while Facebook’s spending spiked by 56 percent, according to the report.