Future Tense

Progressive Groups Launch Ad Campaign to Break Up Facebook

The campaign wants to break up Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp into different companies.
The campaign wants to break up Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp into different companies. JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images

A coalition of eight progressive advocacy groups launched a digital ad campaign on Monday calling on the Federal Trade Commission to, among other things, break up Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp into separate, competing companies.

The “Freedom from Facebook” campaign has a six-figure budget, according to Axios, and will run ads with messages like “Facebook keeps violating your privacy. Break it up.” on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. The coalition is also collecting signatures for a petition to the FTC asking it to split up Facebook, ensure that users on different social media platforms can communicate with each other, and enact stronger privacy regulations.

There are a broad range of activist groups represented in the coalition, as Axios points out. Some, like the Open Markets Institute, have a specific focus on antitrust issues. Others, like MoveOn Civic Action, organize for a variety of progressive causes. And a couple of the groups—Jewish Voice for Peace and MPower Change Muslim Grassroots Movement—are involved in minority advocacy.

It appears that the campaign’s primary focus is to spotlight the allegedly sprawling consequences of Facebook’s “monopoly,” such as social media addiction and the company’s influence over news circulation. Privacy is also an integral part of the campaign; the coalition has released a step-by-step guide instructing users on how to “block Facebook from profiting from all the information it collects about you, your family, and your friends.”

Kevin Carty, a reporter and researcher at the Open Markets Institute, said that the campaign is less focused on bringing a particular legal accusation against Facebook and instead more interested in drawing attention to possible violations that should be examined more closely. For example, Carty said, there is an argument to be made about whether Facebook is breaking the Sherman Antitrust Act by attaining a monopoly, or near monopoly, on the social media market through its various acquisitions. However, the campaign itself is not bringing a suit against Facebook, but rather pushing lawyers to do so.

“I could tell you things that look like attempted monopolization to us that we think are potentially liable under the antitrust laws, but that is still for the FTC and the DOJ to make the determination. We’re just trying to give evidence that they should look at,” said Carty. “It’s not quite for us to make the determination as to exactly what law or part of the law Facebook violated.”

The issue of Facebook’s impact on competition in the tech industry came up in a few questions from lawmakers during CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony in April. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, asked Zuckerberg what his company’s biggest competitor was. The CEO claimed that Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and Google “overlap” with Facebook in different ways. When Graham then asked if Facebook is a monopoly, Zuckerberg replied, “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me.”

An FTC spokesperson declined to comment on the campaign. A Facebook spokesperson sent a statement to Slate:

Facebook is in a competitive environment where people use our apps at the same time they use free services offered by many others. The average person uses eight different apps to communicate and stay connected. People use Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger because they find them valuable, and we’ve been able to better fight spam and abuse and build new features much faster by working under one roof. We support smart privacy regulation and efforts that make it easier for people to take their data to competing services. But rather than wait, we’ve simplified our privacy controls and introduced new ways for people to access and delete their data, or to take their data with them.

An FTC breakup of Facebook would be highly unusual but not technically unprecedented, said Seth Bloom, who formerly served as general counsel of the U.S. Senate Antitrust Subcommittee. In 1982, the FTC moved to spin off local telephone services provided by the Bell operating companies from AT&T. Yet in that case, the Justice Department had brought charges against AT&T, accusing it of violating the Sherman Antitrust Act by improperly using its monopoly profits.

“The real question with Facebook is whether it’s an antitrust story,” Bloom told Slate. He noted that there would need to be evidence that Facebook has in fact violated a specific antitrust law. Bloom added, “Just to be big is not bad. That doesn’t give you cause to break it up.”