Is 2021 the year that Facebook finally gets broken up?

Will Mark Zuckerberg’s tech giant avoid a breakup this year? Or will ‘big tech’ lose its ability to throttle smaller ventures forever?

In December, grey clouds loomed over Facebook HQ as the Federal Trade Commission, together with 46 state prosecutors and the District of Columbia and Guam, sued the social network, citing that it had illegally hoovered up rival companies in an aggressive attempt to stamp out competition.

“For nearly a decade, Facebook has used its dominance and monopoly power to crush smaller rivals and snuff out competition, all at the expense of everyday users,” said New York Attorney General Letitia James, on behalf of the coalition that has filed the landmark lawsuit. “By using its vast troves of data and money, Facebook has squashed or hindered what the company perceived to be potential threats.”

This comes as the microscope zooms further in on ‘big tech’, with Google, for instance, recently landing in the cross hairs of the Justice Department, having been charged for unlawfully maintaining its monopoly over online advertising and searching. Moreover, when speaking to The New York Times at the beginning of 2020, president-elect Joe Biden said that he would revoke Section 230, a major piece of internet legislation which prevents social media platforms from being liable for illegal or offensive content posted by users.

For too long the FTC — whose task is to protect “consumers by stopping unfair, deceptive or fraudulent practices in the marketplace” — has shirked its responsibility of checking the growth of tech behemoths and imposing meaningful, significant action on them when it’s been required. 

But, now, following an 18-month-long investigation, regulators are calling for “the divestiture or restructuring of illegally acquired companies”, or, in other words, for Mark Zuckerberg to separate Facebook — which has amassed well over two billion users since its founding, in 2004 — from its prized assets: the photo-sharing app Instagram, bought for $1bn, in 2012, and instant-messaging platform WhatsApp, which was swallowed up two years later, in a deal that has remained Facebook’s biggest purchase to date, having cost $19bn. A penalty of this level is one of the severest that can be slapped down in such cases.

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