The Big Four tech companies haven’t been able to catch a break lately, as lawmakers and federal agencies at home and abroad put the world’s most powerful tech giants in their crosshairs. And apparently the federal oversight is just getting started. The U.S. Department of Justice announced Tuesday that it’s launching a new, sweeping antitrust investigation into “market-leading online platforms” and whether they’re undertaking practices “that have reduced competition, stifled innovation, or otherwise harmed consumers.” While the DOJ’s announcement did not name specific companies, the Wall Street Journal suggests the probe will likely target major players including Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon.
The new DOJ investigation is expected to examine how the largest tech companies have grown their ranks and expanded their reach into adjacent businesses, as well as how they’re leveraging their massive user bases, sources told the Journal. Amazon, for instance, has come under fire from the European Union for allegedly using consumer data to compete with third-party sellers on the site. While there is reportedly no specific end goal for the investigation, the Journal reports that it could potentially lead to more focused inquiries into specific issues, as well as expand to include unrelated legal violations that arise during the antitrust probe.
The DOJ review comes amid surging skepticism in Washington and in the national media toward Silicon Valley, following a cascade of major data privacy scandals and growing economic inequality. The investigation also reflects Attorney General William Barr‘s personal interest in taking on the tech sector, which he previously identified as a matter of concern during his Senate confirmation hearing in January. “I don’t think big is necessarily bad, but I think a lot of people wonder how such huge behemoths that now exist in Silicon Valley have taken shape under the nose of the antitrust enforcers,” Barr told senators. “You can win that place in the marketplace without violating the antitrust laws, but I want to find out more about that dynamic.”
The Justice Department’s announcement builds on a previous effort by the DOJ and Federal Trade Commission to divvy up antitrust oversight of the Big Four tech companies back in June. (The FTC gained oversight of Amazon and Facebook, while DOJ oversees Apple and Google.) According to the Journal, this new investigation has been crafted to “go above and beyond” those plans, which could put tech companies at risk of facing antitrust claims from both the Justice Department and FTC. The new investigation is also seemingly taking place in addition to a reported DOJ antitrust probe into Google’s monopolization practices—the Journal notes it is currently unclear how much the two will intersect—and a separate FTC task force examining the tech industry’s potential antitrust violations. (The FTC’s ability to oversee Big Tech has been the matter of much scrutiny lately, though, as the agency levied a paltry $5 billion fine against Facebook after reportedly being beaten into submission by the social media giant’s legal team.)
Though this investigation is being headed by the Trump administration’s DOJ, wariness of Silicon Valley has become a major concern on both sides of the aisle. The Democratic-controlled House took on the issue in a House Judiciary Committee hearing last week, in which representatives from the Big Four companies were grilled about the companies’ practices that potentially violate antitrust laws. And they didn’t get off scot-free. Antitrust subcommittee chairman Rep. David Cicilline, who is conducting the House’s “top-to-bottom” antitrust investigation, sent letters to Facebook, Amazon, and Google Tuesday with additional questions, noting that he was “deeply troubled by the evasive, incomplete, or misleading answers received to basic questions directed to these companies.” The DOJ’s new investigation only adds to this swell of federal resources aimed at Silicon Valley, ramping up the perception that maybe these tech companies will finally be taken to task. “Whether it ends up being an antitrust investigation or not, the public is going to expect that the government is now really taking charge of everything people are worried about,” Gene Kimmelman, a former DOJ antitrust official, told CNN. “If we don’t get antitrust action, I think there’ll be increased pressure for doing something else.”
While the Justice Department’s commitment to scrutinize the tech industry plays into these bipartisan efforts, though, critics are already worried that having Barr, a noted Trump lackey, and his DOJ lead the probe risks the investigation becoming a way for President Donald Trump to personally punish the tech companies he feels are biased against him. The president has frequently lashed out against Amazon and made unsubstantiated claims that social media platforms discriminate against conservatives, as well as suggested that the government “should be suing Google and Facebook.” Will the DOJ investigation now be a tool for him to act out his aggression? Senator Mark Warner emphasized the need for regulation in a statement to CNN while warning the investigation should take place “outside political considerations,” while Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who’s made breaking up Big Tech a major part of her 2020 platform, said that she supports a “legitimate antitrust investigation” but that it “requires careful congressional oversight.” “We should be wary that this administration doesn’t abuse this necessary review in order to pursue its own partisan agenda,” Warren said on Twitter Tuesday. “This issue is too important to be dragged into Trump’s petty grievances against these companies.”
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