Mark Zuckerberg is now working overtime to convince the American people to trust him with their personal data. Facebook knew tens of millions of Americans had their personal information stolen by Cambridge Analytica for the purposes of helping Steve Bannon and billionaire Robert Mercer elect Donald Trump, but only took responsibility for the breach after it became international news — two years after the fact.
Facebook’s lack of transparency is part of a broader pattern by its leadership. Mark Zuckerberg is an unelected, unregulated oligarch who controls industries and shapes the fate of our democracy without our consent. Congress must stop relying on his empty promise to self-regulate his monopoly, and take action to protect the American people.
Politicians shouldn’t be afraid to take on Zuckerberg — I’ve done it myself, and won. In 2014, he bought 700 acres of beachfront land in my home state of Hawaii. He built a wall around the property and then tried to force hundreds of Native Hawaiians to forfeit their gathering rights to the land by suing them. This same tactic was used by sugar barons in the Gilded Age to displace thousands of Native Hawaiian families from their ancestral lands.
Instead of letting a billionaire buy another vacation home and displace local families, I introduced a bill that would keep Hawaiian lands in Hawaiian hands. We organized thousands of Native Hawaiians and residents to fight back, and we won; Zuckerberg dropped the lawsuits.
Washington needs to learn from the people of Hawaii. We need bipartisan congressional investigations into unregulated monopolies like Facebook, and once Democrats retake the House in 2018, we need to push for bold new antitrust policies that challenge corporate power.
Hawaii has a long history of dealing with oligarchs like Zuckerberg. After it was annexed by the United States in 1898, five families quickly consolidated control of the sugar industry and rigged the political system to their favor. The attorney general of Hawaii, Edward Dole, said that the government of Hawaii was “probably almost as much centralized as it was in France under Louis XIV." At the height of the Gilded Age, these ultra-wealthy monopolists had an iron grip on our island, much like the railroad tycoons and robber barons on the mainland.
Today, we’re seeing a new generation of billionaires take control of our democracy. The growth of unregulated giants like Facebook has given rise to a digital oligarchy and a new Gilded Age. Our democracy is on the brink of collapse because our economy is owned by a handful of enormous corporations and our elections are being manipulated by a small group of billionaire donors.
Facebook has grown into a monopoly the size and scope of which the world has never seen, and the lack of oversight and competition encourages reckless behavior, stifles innovation, and leaves the rest of us bearing the personal and financial risks. Facebook strives to be a public utility that informs and connects the public, but unbeknownst to many of its users, it acts like a surveillance machine that sells our data to enrich billionaires.
It’s not enough for Mark Zuckerberg to say that he’s sorry, or promise to strengthen privacy standards. The promises Zuckerberg made this week were the ones Facebook made after a major privacy breach in 2011. Those steps were never taken, so we can’t trust those promises now. Facebook is one of the most dangerous unregulated monopolies because of the central role it plays in informing the public and shaping our elections. We must take action now.
If we’re serious about fixing our democracy and creating an economy that works for all of us, we must break up monopolies like Facebook and regulate them like utilities. Congress should require Facebook to split off Instagram and WhatsApp, which would break its advertising monopoly. Then, Congress should pass data rules to treat Facebook as the "social utility" Zuckerberg once said it was.
It won’t be easy to get there: At this point Facebook, with its 2.2 billion users and $500 billion in market capitalization, is more powerful than many of the national governments that would like to regulate it. Even in the US, many politicians are scared to take on a global enterprise that decides what information their constituents see. There is nothing stopping Facebook from altering its algorithms to push negative news against activists or elected officials who call for more regulation.
But in this moment of rising oligarchy, Democrats have a choice: Do we stand with the American people against oligarchs like Zuckerberg, or so we continue to offer them aid, comfort, and impunity? I trust that my fellow Democrats will rise to the occasion, and join the fight against the oligarchy on behalf of the American people.
Kaniela Ing is a Democratic member of the Hawaii State House of Representatives, and is running to represent Hawaii's 1st District in the US House.