Monday, May 13, 2019

Will Russia Blackmail Mark Zuckerberg?


The news media has been running many stories lately about calls for the U.S. government to break up Facebook.  One idea is to separate Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, all of which are owned by Facebook and all of which are controlled by Mark Zuckerberg.  These three websites together dominate social media, and advocates of a breakup express concern about monopolization, and also the potential impact on freedom of speech of having so much of the social media business under a single corporate roof.  Indeed, it's not just a concern about a single corporate holding company.  We're talking about one guy--Mark Zuckerberg--who controls all three of these dominant sites.  Zuckerberg arranged to have himself given supervoting shares of Facebook when the company went public.  So he single-handedly controls everything at these three companies even though he has taken a lot of money from public investors.

Special Robert Mueller indicted a bunch of Russians and Russian companies for interfering with the 2016 election, and his redacted report discusses this problem in some detail.  U.S. intelligence agencies are supposedly combating Russian efforts to muck around in the 2020 election.  Only time will tell how effective the countermeasures are.  We may get a preview from the European Parliament election taking place later this month, which Russia is reportedly trying to influence.

But there's a simpler strategy for Vladimir Putin:  blackmail Mark Zuckerberg.  After all, Zuckerberg controls the whole shebang, and if you control him, you're in a sweet spot.  Zuckerberg is human like the rest of us, and all Putin and his henchmen need to do is find out what his weaknesses are.  This surely has already occurred to them, and they no doubt are nosing around in Zuckerberg's past as much as they can.  They'll try to tally every beer he drank before turning 21, and everything he may have smoked or snorted.  They no doubt will be pro-active, which is an integral part of Russian spycraft.  Pro-activity in this regard could mean things like ensuring that Zuckerberg has the opportunity to meet very attractive, friendly and easy-going women wherever he is, and only later might he find out that they had tiny cameras.  If Putin succeeds in getting a pee tape or its equivalent featuring Zuckerberg, Mark will be in a bad place.

U.S. antitrust law doesn't provide that a company can be broken up because its CEO is subject to blackmail by a foreign nation.  But there seem to be good arguments for contending that Facebook satisfies the legal requirements for splitting it up.  And the distinct possibility that a hostile foreign nation would want to blackmail Zuckerberg provides additional reason to be concerned about allowing today's monolithic Facebook to keep lumbering along. 

There may be some who would suggest that Putin already controls the U.S. government, and would through his proxy (you know who) stop the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission from taking action to break up Facebook.  Whether or not this is true, Putin would want to blackmail Zuckerberg if he can.  The government--at least those parts of the government that still adhere to their oaths to support and defend the Constitution--should do whatever is possible to stop this from happening.  The rest of us may want to consider taking a break from Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.