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Bernie Sanders backs proposal for Big Tech break up

Image credit: Reuters/Loren Elliott

Bernie Sanders, one of the prominent Democrat candidates for the US 2020 Presidential elections, has sided with calls for Facebook and other major tech companies to be broken up.

Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, has approximately 2.3 billion users across its platforms. In recent years, it has expanded beyond social media platforms, creating branded consumer electronics and acquiring virtual reality headset company Oculus. Since 2016, it has been consistently ranked among the 10 largest and most valuable companies by market capitalisation.

In recent years, concerns about Facebook’s operations – such as its failure to adhere to data protection laws – have led to several governments introducing legislation regulating the behaviour of social media companies and other online platforms, including a controversial German law which introduced heavy fines for internet companies that failed to remove illegal content within 24 hours.

The UK government has laid out policies which could see executives like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg held personally liable when harmful content (such as videos depicting terrorist acts) proliferates on their platforms. Pressure on these companies has intensified following the live Facebook broadcast of an alleged white supremacist terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, which left 51 Muslims dead. The footage was circulated widely on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit.

In March, Zuckerberg used a Washington Post column to acknowledge the necessity for Facebook and other social networks to work with regulators.

The regulation of big tech companies has become a major policy talking point amid the crowded race to become the Democratic presidential candidate in 2020: a race which contains more than 20 candidates.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was the first to announce her intention to break up the largest tech giants, including Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple. She is so far the only candidate to have released detailed policy proposals on this issue: she stated that she would designate platforms worth more than $25bn (£19bn) as ‘platform utilities’ which would not be allowed to simultaneously own a platform and competitors on the platform.

Warren’s plans were explicitly backed by a progressive long-odds candidate, Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who represents Hawaii in Congress.

More recently, California Senator Kamala Harris said in an interview with CNN that US authorities should “seriously” consider breaking up Facebook, citing the fact that few people could afford not use the platform in order to stay in the loop both in their social and work lives.

Harris said: “We have to recognise [Facebook] for what it is: it is essentially a utility that has gone unregulated.” New Jersey Senator Cory Booker implied that – while he did not have a direct interest in attacking Facebook – he may oversee the break-up of tech giants as president. Booker told ABC that: “We need a president that’s going to enforce antitrust laws in this country, and I will be that person.” Meanwhile, Senator Amy Klobuchar said that she would – as president – investigate if breaking up these tech companies was the right solution.

Now, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders – who made a name for himself competing for the nomination against Hillary Clinton in 2016 – has come out in favour of Warren’s plans. In an interview with Politico, Sanders was asked if he agreed with her proposals to declare these companies as utilities and enforce demergers.

“The answer is yes, of course,” Sanders said. “We have a monopolistic – an increasingly monopolistic society where you have a handful of very large corporations having much too much power over consumers.”

This week, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg – another frontrunner in the race – agreed that the social network had too much power, and described an op-ed published by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes calling for its break-up as “very convincing”. Despite his public criticism of tech monopolies, Buttigieg has stopped short of explicitly endorsing Warren’s plans for a demerger.

Former Vice President Joe Biden – who is currently the favourite to take the nomination – has taken a less progressive stance than his rivals in the race, and has so far remained silent on the issue of Facebook’s influence and behaviour.

Criticism of Facebook and other online platforms has not been limited to Democratic politicians, with right-wing Republicans also pouring scorn on these companies, including over allegations of left-wing bias at Google and others. These allegations have been sparked by – among other provocations – the removal of several high-profile far-right provocateurs from Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter following the Christchurch terror attack.

Yesterday, the White House called on Americans to submit complaints about politically-motivated bans and suspensions on social media via a reporting tool. These complaints are shared directly with Trump, rather than any federal agency.

“SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS should advance FREEDOM OF SPEECH,” the White House announcement said, making use of Trump’s idiosyncratic writing style. “Yet too many Americans have seen their anoints suspended, banned, or fraudulently reported for unclear “violations” of user policies.”

The tool requests that people submit their email address to be added to a mailing list to receive Trump’s email newsletters and stay up to date with his activities.

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