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Early Facebook backer Roger McNamee calls for breaking up the company

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Roger McNamee, an early backer of Facebook and mentor to its CEO Mark Zuckerberg, is calling to break up the company.

In a blistering essay that forms the cover of this week's Time, McNamee, one of the best-known venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, called Facebook, Google and Amazon monopolies that harm consumers and the economy and called for their breakups as well as further regulations of their activities. He accuses the three companies, and Facebook in particular, of damaging democracy, manipulating users and ignoring their own negative effects on society because of their financial success.

Time Magazine

At Facebook, McNamee wrote, the company's growing dominance of social media markets and advertising created a success-at-all-costs mentality that "eventually led to catastrophe" —from gathering users' data without their consent to influencing election outcomes in the U.S. and U.K.

"To feed its AI and algorithms, Facebook gathered data anywhere it could. Before long, Facebook was spying on everyone, including people who do not use Facebook. Unfortunately for users, Facebook failed to safeguard that data. Facebook sometimes traded the data to get better business deals." 

Despite its lip service to doing good, such as by providing internet service in developing countries, Facebook has caused "massive social disruption," McNamee wrote, citing the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas in Myanmar and mob violence in Sri Lanka sparked by erroneous posts on Facebook.

McNamee, who still holds shares in Facebook, said that reforming the company was a moral imperative. "Google and Facebook are artificially profitable because they do not pay for the damage they cause," he wrote. Likening their effects to that of tobacco, he called for regulators to limit the markets where the tech giants can operate, including preventing them from making acquisitions and outlawing "cross subsidies and data sharing among products within each platform."

McNamee also called for stringent privacy protections for user data—an idea that has been gathering popularity in Congress ever since European Union and California passed far-reaching privacy laws last year. He also called for treating the growing phenomenon of addiction to technology as a public health issue.

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"[T]hese recommendations sound extreme, but there may be no other way to protect children, adults, democracy and the economy. Our parents and grandparents had a similar day of reckoning with tobacco. Now it's our turn, this time with Internet platforms," he wrote.

Responding to the op-ed, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg pointed Time to a Facebook post from late December detailing the company's work on privacy and security.

It's not the first time McNamee has spoken out against Facebook and Google. Writing in USA Today last year, the VC giant called the two tech giants a "menace to society" and to democracy, and said they "terrify" him.

His op-ed in Time comes one day after Facebook announced the removal of several hundred fake accounts linked to Russia from its network.

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