Government regulators are opening up a sweeping antitrust review of internet giants such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon — and they’re asking for the public’s help to do it. It’s the latest development in Washington’s growing scrutiny of Big Tech.
On Tuesday, the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division said it is reviewing “whether and how market-leading online platforms have achieved market power and are engaging in practices that have reduced competition, stifled innovation, or otherwise harmed consumers.” In other words, it wants to find out whether the big tech companies it’s been watching for a while are behaving badly.
The vaguely worded announcement seems, in part, to be a call for the public, competitors, and other tech industry participants to reach out to the department with information. It says it will consider the widespread concerns that consumers, businesses, and entrepreneurs have about “search, social media, and some retail services online.” It doesn’t directly name the companies, but it’s pretty clear which ones it’s scrutinizing.
“Without the discipline of meaningful market-based competition, digital platforms may act in ways that are not responsive to consumer demands,” Makan Delrahim, who heads the Justice Department’s antitrust division, said in the statement. The department said that if it identifies legal violations, it will “proceed appropriately to seek redress.”
The timing of the announcement — or what exactly it means — isn’t exactly clear. A Justice Department spokesperson did not return a request for comment.
In June, multiple reports indicated that the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission, which generally split antitrust enforcement at the federal level, were divvying up responsibility for potential action against Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Amazon. The Justice Department would reportedly handle Apple and Google, and Facebook and Amazon would be under the FTC’s purview.
As Recode’s Teddy Schleifer reported at the time, one impetus for this current regulatory push right now is that polls show it’s good politics to go after Big Tech:
Take the Harris Poll, which surveys Americans on the corporate reputations of various companies. Google’s reputation fell 13 spots in Harris’ most recent poll issued in 2019, one of most precipitous declines in the survey. One of the few companies that saw more reputational damage? Facebook, which fell 43 slots on the 100-company list to be about as popular — or unpopular, depending on how you look at it — as other scandal-plagued companies like Wells Fargo and the Trump Organization.
And, as Schleifer notes, the dissatisfaction with tech companies is bipartisan. Just last week, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle questioned tech representatives at an antitrust hearing in the House Judiciary Committee.
Recode’s Jason Del Rey reported in June that the FTC has been pursuing three lines of questioning around Amazon: the pricing structure of Amazon’s logistics service, whether Amazon competes against its own sellers, and how Amazon Prime bundles services.
It is also worth noting that regulators have investigated Google before and determined it’s not engaging in anticompetitive behaviors — namely, in 2013, when the FTC ended a two-year investigation over how Google prioritizes search results with the decision that it wasn’t broken the law. (The European Union, on the other hand, has dinged Google for anticompetitive behavior on multiple occasions.)
One thing is clear: Big Tech is increasingly in the regulatory crosshairs, and Silicon Valley does not have a great friend in President Donald Trump. In an interview with Bloomberg in August 2018, the president warned that tech companies could be a “very antitrust situation.”
Delrahim, in a subsequent interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher, was more careful in his assessment. “You know, people get a lot of headlines and attention by calling on antitrust actions or breaking up this company or that company,” he said at the time. “It happens in the United States. We’ve heard this the last couple years. … I think that we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do and look at cases.”
Tuesday’s announcement shows the Justice Department is doing just that.
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