Jun 4, 2019 - Technology

Feds crank up antitrust heat on Big Tech

illustration of a desktop computer sweating in intense heat

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Broad U.S. antitrust action against Big Tech moved firmly from the speculative realm to the investigative mode in the last 72 hours, as both Congress and regulatory agencies appeared to be moving forward with inquiries.

The big picture: While the pressure on the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple has been mounting for years, the one-two punch of a public Congressional investigation into their dominance and possible antitrust probes by regulators marks a major escalation in tensions.

  • Last year saw high-profile testimony by CEOs like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, but the action will now shift to more mundane yet substantial document and evidence gathering that would form the basis of court cases or settlements.

Driving the news: The House Judiciary Committee said Monday that it was launching a bipartisan investigation into whether big tech platforms are engaged in monopolistic practices.

  • A person familiar with the investigation said that, in addition to public hearings, the inquiry would include requesting documents from a wide range of companies.
  • That could allow the committee to receive information from small competitors of the tech giants who would otherwise be wary of testifying publicly, the person said.
  • "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," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the committee's chairman.
  • Tech stocks fell in Monday trading as the federal interest in the companies came into focus.

Between the lines: The investigation could help lawmakers develop a factual record to shape legislation overhauling the nation's antitrust laws, which reformers say are inadequate for reining in corporate power as it exists today.

The announcement followed reporting over the weekend and into Monday that the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission had split up the field of investigations into anti-competitive behavior by tech giants.

  • While the agencies’ plans remain somewhat unclear, the Journal reported that interest in investigating Google and Facebook was more advanced.

Why it matters: Of the many ways critics want to address concerns about Big Tech, antitrust action has always been among the most significant — although it was largely seen as the least likely route.

  • It could result in action as serious as the firms being broken up, but even if it doesn't, it could seriously distract the platforms' efforts to grow their main businesses and anticipate new waves of tech innovation. Microsoft learned this lesson the hard way after its antitrust fight with Washington two decades ago.

What we're watching: Congressional hearings on the issue will unfold in the coming months, and signs that DOJ and FTC are moving forward with formal investigations into the tech giants could leak out in the form of official inquiries sent to the companies or their competitors.

Our thought bubble: Once inquiries like this get started, they develop their own momentum even as they proceed at what feels like a leaden pace to tech insiders. These companies likely face years of entanglement.

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