Facebook ought to be penalized for contributing massively to the spread of the spurious information that is undercutting American democracy, but the social-media giant is more likely to be punished for a different offense: being too good at a 21st century game of high-tech Monopoly.
The Federal Trade Commission and attorneys general from 48 states are bringing antitrust lawsuits against Facebook seeking to break the company apart by peeling off Instagram and WhatsApp, two startups that Facebook acquired before they could become major rivals. Facebook, the FTC brief says, utilizes a “buy-or-bury strategy that thwarts competition and harms both users and advertisers.”
Facebook now joins Google as a target of government regulators who are acting on the widespread belief that companies with such enormous market dominance need to be reined in to preserve competition and consumer choice. (Will Amazon be next in government crosshairs?)
The boy kings of Silicon Valley in their T-shirts and sneakers do not see themselves as bad guys; they see themselves as super-smart innovators who are inventing the future while trying to survive in a shark pool filled with other super-smart guys who want to change the world, too, and get fabulously rich in the process. The robber barons of the Gilded Age probably perceived themselves in a similar way. They were building America with steel, railroads and oil, and certainly resented the intrusion of government officials with their fussy ideas about fair competition.
Is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg a robber baron? Is a company that thrives on personal information gleaned from billions of posts about boyfriends, cats, vacations and gossip as destructive as the old combines that controlled railroad freight rates and the price of gasoline? In a society where information is the most valuable commodity, it is hard to argue otherwise.
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