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The worlds of Silicon Valley and Washington, DC continue to collide in strange ways. Just 18 months ago, the only reason Silicon Valley execs even paid attention to Washington, DC was if they had an urgent bit of lobbying business to take care of. If votes were scheduled on Net Neutrality legislation, for example, they might dispatch a top emissary to the nation’s capital. Fast forward 18 months, though, and Facebook has an entirely new reason to send executives to Capitol Hill – to avoid getting their company broken up into a million tiny pieces by overzealous members of Congress.
Facebook and the negative sentiment in DC right now
Keep in mind – we now live in an era where it’s routine for U.S. congressional leaders to chide Facebook (and other social media giants) in public, and even to demand that top officials like CEO Mark Zuckerberg show up for public hearings. The Federal Trade Commission just imposed a whopping multi-billion-dollar fine on Facebook for misdeeds related to the Cambridge Analytica data sharing scandal, and now the Department of Justice is warning that it could launch a major new antitrust investigation into the monopolistic powers of Facebook. Democratic presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren even warn that one of the first items of business if they get elected is to break up Facebook.
So, it’s perhaps no surprise that CEO Mark Zuckerberg didn’t exactly get a warm reception when he traveled to DC recently. His goal was to meet with key U.S. senators and persuade them to turn down the heat on Facebook. With senators grandstanding all over the place, pontificating about what a great evil and scourge Facebook is to the world, there’s a very real risk that they could burn down Facebook in the process. Thus, it’s in Zuckerberg’s best interests to calm everybody down and convince them that Facebook can self-regulate itself out of its current existential crisis.
The plan to break up Facebook
But U.S. senators are in no mood for the same old boilerplate from Facebook. For example, U.S. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) – who has made a name for himself as one of Facebook’s toughest critics – had a face-to-face meeting with Zuckerberg in which he said his ultimate goal was to break Facebook apart into at least three different pieces – Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. In a bit of political posturing, Hawley even challenged Zuckerberg to “prove you’re not afraid of competition” and “prove you have confidence in your core Facebook product” by breaking up Facebook before the U.S. government is forced to do just that.
So will anything really change? Is all this just a bit of pre-2020 grandstanding in order to score political points? Or has the political and social zeitgeist really changed to such an extent that Facebook is ready to become this generation’s Microsoft? In many ways, it looks like the writing is already on the wall. In the current political climate, it’s hard to see how any antitrust investigation into Facebook is going to end well for Mr. Zuckerberg.