Breaking up Facebook Would Be a Technical and Organizational Nightmare — and Would Almost Certainly Harm Consumers

Breaking up Facebook Would Be a Technical and Organizational Nightmare — and Would Almost Certainly Harm Consumers

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[This post is the fifth in an ongoing symposium on “Breaking up Big Tech” that features analysis and opinion from various perspectives.]

Back in May, the New York Times published an op-ed by Chris Hughes, one of the founders of Facebook, in which he called for the break up of his former firm. Hughes joins a growing chorus, including Senator Warren, Roger McNamee and others who have called for the break up of “Big Tech” companies. If Business Insider’s polling is correct, this chorus seems to be quite effective: Nearly 40 percent of Americans now support breaking up Facebook. 

Hughes’ position is perhaps understandable given his other advocacy activities. But it is also worth bearing in mind that he likely was never particularly familiar with or involved in Facebook’s technical backend or business development or sales. Rather, he was important in setting up the public relations and feedback mechanisms. This is relevant because the technical and organizational challenges in breaking up big tech are enormous and underappreciated. 

The Technics of Structural Remedies

As I explained at AAF last year,

Any trust-busting action would also require breaking up the company’s technology stack — a general name for the suite of technologies powering web sites. For example, Facebook developed its technology stack in-house to address the unique problems facing Facebook’s vast troves of data. Facebook created BigPipe to dynamically serve pages faster, Haystack to store billions of photos efficiently, Unicorn for searching the social graph, TAO for storing graph information, Peregrine for querying, and MysteryMachine to help with end-to-end performance analysis. The company also invested billions in data centers to quickly deliver video, and it split the cost of an undersea cable with Microsoft to speed up information travel. Where do you cut these technologies when splitting up the company?

That list, however, leaves out the company’s backend AI platform, known as Horizon. As Christopher Mims reported in the Wall Street Journal, Facebook put serious resources into creating Horizon and it has paid off. About a fourth of the engineers at the company were using this platform in 2017, even though only 30 percent of them were experts in it. The system, as Joaquin Candela explained, is powerful because it was built to be “a very modular layered cake where you can plug in at any level you want.” As Mim was careful to explain, the platform was designed to be “domain-specific,”  or highly modular. In other words, Horizon was meant to be useful across a range of complex problems and different domains. If WhatsApp and Instagram were separated from Facebook, who gets that asset? Does Facebook retain the core tech and then have to sell it at a regulated rate?

Lessons from Attempts to Manage Competition in the Tobacco Industry 

For all of the talk about breaking up Facebook and other tech companies, few really grasp just how lackluster this remedy has been in the past. The classic case to study isn’t AT&T or Standard Oil, but American Tobacco Company

The American Tobacco Company came about after a series of mergers in 1890 orchestrated by J.B. Duke. Then, between 1907 and 1911, the federal government filed and eventually won an antitrust lawsuit, which dissolved the trust into three companies. 

Duke was unique for his time because he worked to merge all of the previous companies into a working coherent firm. The organization that stood trial in 1907 was a modern company, organized around a functional structure. A single purchasing department managed all the leaf purchasing. Tobacco processing plants were dedicated to specific products without any concern for their previous ownership. The American Tobacco Company was rational in a way few other companies were at the time.  

These divisions were pulled apart over eight months. Factories, distribution and storage facilities, back offices and name brands were all separated by government fiat. It was a difficult task. As historian Allan M. Brandt details in “The Cigarette Century,”

It was one thing to identify monopolistic practices and activities in restraint of trade, and quite another to figure out how to return the tobacco industry to some form of regulated competition. Even those who applauded the breakup of American Tobacco soon found themselves critics of the negotiated decree restructuring the industry. This would not be the last time that the tobacco industry would successfully turn a regulatory intervention to its own advantage.

So how did consumers fare after the breakup? Most research suggests that the breakup didn’t substantially change the markets where American Tobacco was involved. Real cigarette prices for consumers were stable, suggesting there wasn’t price competition. The three companies coming out of the suit earned the same profit from 1912 to 1949 as the original American Tobacco Company Trust earned in its heyday from 1898 to 1908. As for the upstream suppliers, the price paid to tobacco farmers didn’t change either. The breakup was a bust.  

The difficulties in breaking up American Tobacco stand in contrast to the methods employed with Standard Oil and AT&T. For them, the split was made along geographic lines. Standard Oil was broken into 34 regional companies. Standard Oil of New Jersey became Exxon, while Standard Oil of California changed its name to Chevron. In the same way, AT&T was broken up in Regional Bell Operating Companies. Facebook doesn’t have geographic lines.

The Lessons of the Past Applied to Facebook

Facebook combines elements of the two primary firm structures and is thus considered a “matrix form” company. While the American Tobacco Company employed a functional organization, the most common form of company organization today is the divisional form. This method of firm rationalization separates the company’s operational functions by product, in order to optimize efficiencies. Under a divisional structure, each product is essentially a company unto itself. Engineering, finance, sales, and customer service are all unified within one division, which sits separate from other divisions within a company. Like countless other tech companies, Facebook merges elements of the two forms. It relies upon flexible teams to solve problems that tend to cross the normal divisional and functional bounds. Communication and coordination is prioritized among teams and Facebook invests heavily to ensure cross-company collaboration. 

Advocates think that undoing the WhatsApp and Instagram mergers will be easy, but there aren’t clean divisional lines within the company. Indeed, Facebook has been working towards a vast reengineering of its backend for some time that, when completed later this year or early 2020, will effectively merge all of the companies into one ecosystem.  Attempting to dismember this ecosystem would almost certainly be disastrous; not just a legal nightmare, but a technical and organizational nightmare as well.

Much like American Tobacco, any attempt to split off WhatsApp and Instagram from Facebook will probably fall flat on its face because government officials will have to create three regulated firms, each with essentially duplicative structures. As a result, the quality of services offered to consumers will likely be inferior to those available from the integrated firm. In other words, this would be a net loss to consumers.

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