Facebook's chief executive appeared on stage Wednesday to shore up his company's arguments against looming regulatory threats just hours before one of those threats, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, was due to take the stage with a grab bag of other presidential hopefuls.
In conversation with honorary Harvard professor and former White House regulatory official Cass Sunstein, Zuckerberg outlined Facebook's support for some regulatory proposals while making clear the company's deep disdain at the idea—espoused by Warren in particular—that big tech be broken up. The conversation took place at a festival held by the Aspen Institute, a centrist think tank.
Zuckerberg called Sen. Mark Warner and Sen. Amy Klobuchar's Honest Ads Act, which would regulate online campaign ads in a bid to weed out disinformation from foreign actors, “a good floor for what should be passed,” adding that Facebook is already complying with many of its requirements. “Having a bill like that passed as a floor would be positive,” Zuckerberg said.
Going on the offensive against Congress and federal agencies, Zuckerberg blamed a regulatory vacuum for many of the platform's woes and pointed the finger at the government for failing to prevent foreign adversaries from meddling in U.S. political life. Specifically, he decried the absence of U.S. retaliation against Russia after the 2016 presidential election.
“As a private company, we don't have the tools to make the Russian government stop,” Zuckerberg said. “We can defend as best we can but our government is the one that has the tools to make [them] stop—not us. That's something that is a little bit above our pay grade.”
Signaling that Facebook was happy to lose some battles if it wins the war, he called for privacy guidelines “telling companies what to do” and said his company supports regulation that would stipulate data portability requirements.
The mood shifted when Zuckerberg was asked about disassembling Facebook and unwinding the many acquisitions that have helped the platform stay two steps ahead of competitors while growing into the behemoth it is today.
“I can get why politically saying that you want to break up the companies feels nice,” Zuckerberg said.
In one of his less believable arguments, Zuckerberg asserted that breaking up Facebook would actually make the platform's systemic problems like harassment and election security worse. Pointing to Twitter and Reddit, two much smaller companies, he argued that those problems don't just go away, and due to a lack of pooled resources among Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp “you'd still have those issues—you'd just be less equipped to deal with them.”
He had little answer for arguments that Facebook engages in anti-competitive behavior beyond declaring that companies like Instagram have a “much richer platform” and reach “many more people” than they did prior to being acquired. The logic was in line with the company's long history of equating big with “good” and pursuing growth for its own sake—at any cost.
“If it were always the case that mergers were bad for innovation we would not allow any mergers in our society,” Zuckerberg said, dismissing the argument that Instagram would have inspired more innovation on its own as “counterfactual.”