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Facebook headquarters in California. Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

A Pennsylvania philanthropist and former hedge fund executive named David Magerman was the initial donor behind a high-profile campaign urging regulators to break up Facebook, he confirmed to Axios for the first time on Thursday.

Why it matters: Magerman has given more than $400,000 to the campaign — "Freedom from Facebook" — because he believes Facebook has too much power over how the world communicates. A Republican-oriented consulting firm hired by Facebook had tried to link the campaign to billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

Responding to Axios’ questions by email, Magerman said he felt that Facebook had a “huge financial disincentive to protect users’ data.”

  • “By combining social media, news distribution, advertising, commerce, and business and political networking, it forces people to engage in its platform, even if they only want one of its offerings,” he told Axios, comparing Facebook’s algorithms to “telescreens” from the novel 1984 that both record people and show them content.
  • He said his goal was to educate “the public about what Facebook was becoming and whether or not one might want to reconsider engaging with it based on that information.”

Details: Magerman said he has given $425,000 to the campaign so far, starting with a $200,000 donation.

  • The effort involves a coalition of progressive groups spearheaded by Demand Progress, Citizens Against Monopoly, and its affiliate Open Markets Institute, a vocal critic of Big Tech.
  • Magerman said that he became interested earlier this year in an effort to inform “the public about the risks of engaging with Facebook.”
"It was my goal to convince people that Facebook is not free, that it exacts a high price from users in the form of their private data, and I think users don't understand that transaction, to all of our detriment."
— David Magerman

An adviser suggested he work with Open Markets Institute, which has helped shape a conversation in Washington about the increasing concentration and influence of major tech firms including Amazon and Google.

  • “I don't know the details of when and how much they raised outside of what I gave them, but I was the only donor (as far as I know) in the early stages of the campaign,” he said.
  • He said he does not hold a short position in Facebook or other companies, and has not benefited financially from the effort.
  • Eddie Vale, a political consultant who helps run the Freedom from Facebook campaign, declined to comment on Magerman's involvement or whether additional donors have funded the effort.

Reality check: Magerman’s funding pales in comparison to Facebook’s lobbying operation. The company spent roughly $11.5 million on federal lobbying last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and employed 11 outside lobbying firms.

The backdrop: A Republican consulting firm — Definers Public Affairs — working for Facebook tried to link the Freedom from Facebook campaign with George Soros, whose Open Society Foundations help fund the Open Markets Institute, the New York Times reported on Wednesday.

“Nothing surprises me anymore,” said Magerman of the NYT report, calling Soros an “easy target” because he “has had the courage to put his name behind major efforts around the world.” (Soros has been the target of anti-Semitic attacks and conspiracy theories.)

The big picture: Magerman has gotten attention for a past political stand.

Until now, though, his involvement with the anti-Facebook campaign has not been disclosed.

  • When asked by Axios about funding earlier this year, Sarah Miller, the deputy director of the Open Markets Institute and a key player in the anti-Facebook group, said that “Facebook is willing to spend a ton of money going after competitors and critics, so to protect the people who support this work we aren’t giving out details about our fundraising.”
  • Magerman said he hadn’t tried to stay anonymous, but simply hadn’t been asked about his involvement until he was contacted by Axios.
  • “I'm not generally someone who seeks publicity, and I saw no value in announcing my involvement,” he said. “That said, I am proud of what Freedom from Facebook has accomplished, and I am proud to be associated with it.”

Also: On Thursday, Freedom from Facebook filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission alleging that Facebook had violated an agreement with the agency and consumer protection law.

Editor's note: This post as been updated to reflect that Demand Progress, not Demand Justice, is spearheading the Freedom from Facebook coalition.

Go deeper

At least 2 dead after Tonga volcano eruption and tsunami

A satellite image of the explosive eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano on Saturday. Photo: UNICEF/NOAA

At least two people are confirmed to have died in Tonga following the undersea volcanic eruption that sent tsunami waves toward the island nation and across the Pacific over the weekend, officials said Monday.

The big picture: Officials reported major damage along the western coast of the main island of Tongatapu, where the capital, Nuku'alofa, was covered in ash and dust, including on the runway of the airport. A New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson told Axios over the phone that two people had been confirmed to have died in the disaster.

Airlines call for Biden admin's "immediate intervention" in 5G deployment

Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The CEOs of leading U.S. air cargo and passenger carriers on Monday warned the Biden administration there could be "catastrophic disruption" after AT&T and Verizon deploy a new 5G service this week.

Driving the news: They said in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and other top federal officials ahead of the C-Band 5G service's deployment Wednesday that "the nation's commerce will grind to a halt" and "could potentially strand tens of thousands of Americans overseas."

Updated 5 hours ago - Energy & Environment

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Satellite imagery of the Northeastern U.S. taken by NOAA on Jan. 17. Photo: NOAA

A major winter storm lashed much of the East Coast Sunday and Monday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The latest: Authorities in North Carolina confirmed that two people died in a car crash and that they responded 600 vehicle accidents during the storm on Sunday, per the Washington Post.

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