Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg told employees that the company was ready to “go to the mat and … fight” if Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a leading Democratic presidential candidate, follows through on her vow to try to break up major technology firms, according to a leaked recording of his remarks published Tuesday.
“If she gets elected president, then I would bet that we will have a legal challenge, and I would bet that we will win the legal challenge. And does that still suck for us? Yeah,” Zuckerberg said in a July meeting with employees, a transcript of which was published by technology news site The Verge.
He added, “I don’t want to have a major lawsuit against our own government. I mean, that’s not the position that you want to be in when you’re, you know, I mean . . . it’s like, we care about our country and want to work with our government and do good things. But look, at the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight.”
Warren, D-Mass., soon responded over Twitter, “What would really ‘suck’ is if we don’t fix a corrupt system that lets giant companies like Facebook engage in illegal anticompetitive practices, stomp on consumer privacy rights, and repeatedly fumble their responsibility to protect our democracy.”
The unusually direct exchange between a presidential candidate and a major corporate leader underscored the heightened political stakes for Silicon Valley ahead of the 2020 election. While many technology leaders have been visibly uneasy with President Trump – who attacks the industry routinely over its alleged bias against conservatives and other issues – there also is discomfort with the calls by Warren and other Democrats to regulate technology firms more aggressively than in the past.
The most alarming proposal to technology leaders is the call by Warren and some other liberals to dismantle major companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook for alleged antitrust violations. Chris Hughes, who co-founded Facebook with Zuckerberg, has been among those calling for a breakup of the company on the grounds that it has grown too powerful.
Facebook dominates much of social media worldwide through its namesake platform as well Instagram and WhatsApp, both of which Facebook acquired when they were smaller but up-and-coming potential rivals.
Zuckerberg said in the same meeting with employees that Facebook is experimenting with a potential alternative to Chinese-owned TikTok, which has grown popular among teens and young adults for its short videos. The Facebook alternative, called Lasso, is being tested in Mexico because, Zuckerberg said, TikTok is not yet popular there. He also said that Facebook was working with government regulators on the company’s controversial plan to introduce a new online currency called Libra.
While other top Facebook executives have publicly argued against breaking up the company, Zuckerberg’s remarks to employees were striking for their direct and often-unguarded tone – especially when compared to his occasional scripted speeches to users, typically through the Facebook Live portal, or in his nationally televised appearances on Capitol Hill last year. There, his opening comments and responses to questions were carefully constructed after days of preparation with lawyers.
After Zuckerberg’s comments were published Tuesday, Warren took advantage of the news moment to tout her plan, “How We Can Break Up Big Tech,” linking to it in a tweet saying, “I’m not afraid to hold Big Tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon accountable. It’s time to #BreakUpBigTech.”
Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.
Facebook spokesman Andy Stone declined to elaborate on Zuckerberg’s comments or respond to those from Warren. Hours after the Verge story was published, Zuckerberg linked to it on his Facebook page saying, “even though it was meant to be internal rather than public, now that it’s out there, you can check it out if you’re interested in seeing an unfiltered version of what I’m thinking and telling employees on a bunch of topics like social responsibility, breaking up tech companies, Libra, neural computing interfaces, and doing the right thing over the long term.”
The idea of enhanced antitrust enforcement of major technology companies has been gaining currency in recent years, both on the state and federal level. The Justice Department announced a major review of “market-leading platforms” in July that is ongoing.
As the Trump administration pursues possible antitrust claims, the issue is one of the few in the current political landscape that has significant support from both Democrats and Republicans.
The push by Warren and others for possible corporate breakups marks a departure from the Democratic Party’s approach to such issues during the Obama administration, which was widely seen as sympathetic to Silicon Valley and had numerous former tech company officials in important administration jobs. A federal antitrust probe of Google, which ended in 2013, led to modest changes but no restructuring of that company.