Last Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission, 46 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam filed lawsuits asserting that Facebook is an illegal monopoly—and seeking the forced divestiture of Instagram and WhatsApp. If successful, the suits would undo the acquisitions that played pivotal roles in Facebook’s dominance of social media and messaging over the past decade.
It might be years before it’s clear what all this means for the company—and even after it seems to be clear, it might not be. After all, the closest parallel in recent memory is the Department of Justice’s 1990s antitrust suit against Microsoft, which was spawned by that company’s bundling of its Internet Explorer browser with Windows. Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ordered Microsoft to be split into two companies: one to make operating systems and one to make apps such as Office. That would have changed software history. But Jackson’s decree was overturned. Eventually, Microsoft agreed to a settlement that put restrictions on its business practices that no consumer would have noticed.
Like Microsoft, Facebook may evade being dismantled. Still, just considering the idea of Instagram and WhatsApp being spun out raises intriguing what-if scenarios. And it led me to wonder: How different would the tech industry be if Facebook hadn’t bought them in the first place—whether because the FTC didn’t allow it, someone else struck a deal first, or their founders simply chose to remain independent?