US moving towards major antitrust probe of tech giants

The Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice have divided oversight over the four companies, two sources said, with Amazon and Facebook under the watch of the FTC, and Apple and Google under the Justice Department.
The Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice have divided oversight over the four companies, two sources said, with Amazon and Facebook under the watch of the FTC, and Apple and Google under the Justice Department.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - The US government is gearing up to investigate the massive market power of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, sources told Reuters on Monday (June 3), setting up what could be an unprecedented wide-ranging probe of some of the world's largest companies.

The Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice, which jointly enforce antitrust laws in the United States, have divided oversight over the four companies, two sources said, with Amazon and Facebook under the watch of the FTC, and Apple and Google under the Justice Department.

Technology companies are facing a backlash in the United States and across the world, fueled by some people's belief that the firms have too much power and are exerting a harmful effect on users or competitive marketplaces.

The House Judiciary Committee is also joining the rush to investigate big technology companies with a focus on whether increased concentration in the industry is crowding out competition and hurting consumers.  

Congress’s investigation will address three issues, according to a committee statement released on Monday. The hearings, led by the Antitrust Subcommittee, will focus on competition in digital markets, anti-competitive conduct of “dominant firms,” and whether current laws and enforcement policies are adequate.  

“There is growing evidence that a handful of gatekeepers have come to capture control over key arteries of online commerce, content, and communications,” Jerrold Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the committee said in a statement.

“Given the growing tide of concentration and consolidation across our economy, it is vital that we investigate the current state of competition in digital markets and the health of the antitrust laws.”

The Justice Department and FTC generally do not acknowledge preparations for any investigations.

US President Donald Trump has called for closer scrutiny of social media companies and Google, accusing them of suppressing conservative voices online, without presenting any evidence.

He has also repeatedly criticised Amazon for taking advantage of the US Postal Service, also without evidence.

Shares of Facebook Inc and Google's owner Alphabet Inc both fell more than 6 per cent on Monday. Amazon.com Inc shares fell 4.5 per cent and Apple Inc shares were down 1 per cent.

 
 
 

US media reported on Friday that the Justice Department was laying the groundwork to investigate Google to determine whether the world's biggest online advertising platform was using its size to squeeze out smaller competitors, violating laws designed to ensure fair competition. The company declined comment on Friday.

The Washington Post reported on Saturday that Amazon would come under the remit of the FTC in any probe. Amazon declined comment on Monday.

Apple and Facebook did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Monday.

REGULATORY SCRUTINY

The four technology companies, all with market values in the hundreds of billions of dollars, have drawn scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers around the world over aspects of their business practices, although it was not clear what the US Justice Department or FTC were planning to look at, if anything.

Amazon, the world's biggest online retailer, has been criticised for holding sway over third-party sellers on its website, who must pay for advertising to compete against first-party and private label sales by Amazon itself. Lawmakers have also argued that Amazon's low prices have hurt brick-and-mortar retailers, many of whom have been unable to compete and have closed.

The European Union is investigating a complaint by streaming music provider Spotify Technology SA that Apple abuses its power over app downloads. In 2014, the iPhone maker settled a Justice Department lawsuit alleging it conspired with publishers to raise the price of e-books.

The FTC has already been investigating Facebook's sharing of data belonging to 87 million of its users with the now-defunct British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. Facebook said in April that it expected to be fined up to $5 billion by the regulator.

Facebook, which owns one-time rivals Instagram and WhatsApp and has more than 1.5 billion daily users, has a huge influence in many countries and has been criticised for allowing misleading posts and so-called 'fake news' on its service.

The company last month rejected a call from one of its co-founders to split it into three, as lawmakers ramped up pressure on the Justice Department to launch an antitrust investigation.

Google has faced accusations that its web search service, which dominates the market and has become a verb, leads consumers to its own products at the cost of competitors.

The FTC settled an investigation of Google in 2013, concluding that the company had not manipulated its search results to hurt rivals. But the company has been fined multiple times by the European Union's competition regulator, most recently in March for 1.5 billion euro (S$2.3 billion) in a case focused on illegal practices in search advertising brokering from 2006 to 2016.

Legal experts have said US regulators are unlikely to attempt to break up the technology giants.

It is rare to break up a company but not unheard of, with Standard Oil and AT&T being two of the biggest examples.

US antitrust probes more often result in an agreement to change certain business practices.