California Senator Kamala Harris, one of the (innumerable) Democrats eyeing the White House in a 2020 presidential bid, has joined Massachusetts senator and fellow candidate Elizabeth Warren in calling for antitrust authorities to look at a possible breakup of Facebook.
Possible antitrust action against Facebook has been in the news lately after one of the platform’s co-founders, Chris Hughes, published an op-ed in the New York Times saying the company has become too big and too powerful to be subject to any real accountability, suppresses competition, and must be split up.
Harris didn’t go so far as Warren — who has published a proposal calling for regulators to split off Facebook subsidiaries Instagram and WhatsApp — but in a CNN interview on Sunday, she said it was time to take the idea seriously.
Sen. Kamala Harris says "Facebook has experienced massive growth and has prioritized its growth over the best interests of its consumers … It is essentially a utility that has gone unregulated." #CNNSOTU pic.twitter.com/LADYpEaT7h
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) May 12, 2019
“I think that Facebook has experienced massive growth, and has prioritised its growth over the best interests of its consumers—especially on the issue of privacy,” Harris told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “There is no question in my mind that there needs to be serious regulation, and that has not been happing. There needs to be more oversight; that has not been happening.”
“... They have not been adequately informing consumers about where they are relinquishing their privacy,” Harris added.
When Tapper asked Harris directly whether she believed that Facebook should be broken up, Harris responded, “Yeah, I think we have to seriously take a look at that. Yes. I mean, when you look at the issue, they’re essentially a utility. There are very people that can actually get by and be involved in their communities, or society, or in whatever their profession [is], without somehow, somewhere using Facebook. It’s very difficult for people to be engaged in any level of commerce without” Facebook.
“So we have to recognise it for what it is,” Harris concluded. “It is essentially a utility that has gone unregulated. And as far as I’m concerned that’s gotta stop.”
Presidents are at least formally supposed to keep their nose out of the workings of specific cases brought by federal authorities, which in this scenario would mean competition watchdogs at the Department of Justice and/or the Federal Trade Commission.
However, the White House nominates appointees and can set general priorities for the DOJ — and the current administration, at least, has flirted with the idea of throwing independence to the wind and ordering antitrust officials to look at major online platforms (albeit on the grounds of unhinged theories that Silicon Valley companies are conspiring against conservatives).
There’s also the possibility, as Warren proposed and Harris seemed to get on board with in the interview, of passing legislation that would redesignate companies as a form of utility and thus be subject to greatly increased regulation.
Harris is currently considered one of the more credible competitors for the Democratic nomination in 2020, trailing former Vice President Joe Biden (who has a commanding lead), democratic socialist and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and Warren in RealClearPolitics’ average of polls, but leading nine other listed contenders. With Warren a strong advocate for breaking up big tech companies, that means the issue is picking up steam and could play a prominent role in the race.
There’s still nearly a year before any actual primary voting happens, though, and a lot can happen in that timeline. Per Politico, Sanders has been publicly critical of Facebook but stopped short of calling for the company to be broken up, while Biden — who really seems determined to appeal to Republican voters — has yet to weigh in at all.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker has framed the issue as a general trend towards consolidation in U.S. business and said he would direct the DOJ’s antitrust division to take appropriate action, but suggested in a recent interview that targeting a specific company “sounds more like a Donald Trump thing to say.”