Jun 17, 2019

Competitors could arm regulators in Big Tech antitrust probes

 Illustration of collection of hands holding gavels in front of a laptop

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A proliferation of antitrust investigations into the tech giants is offering competitors a chance to sound off on claims that their larger rivals are playing dirty.

Why it matters: If the Department of Justice or Federal Trade Commission pursue formal investigations into Google, Facebook, Amazon or Apple, they’ll need all the evidence they can get. The companies that compete with them could provide that by the ton.

Driving the news: DOJ and FTC have split up authority over potentially investigating the four companies for antitrust violations — with Justice taking Google and Apple, and FTC getting Facebook and Amazon.

  • The House Judiciary Committee is simultaneously conducting its own investigation, which is expected to include obtaining information from companies that compete with the giants.

What they’re saying:

"The experiences of other players in the marketplace interacting with dominant firms is a fundamental element of any antitrust investigation."
— Gene Kimmelman, president of advocacy group Public Knowledge and a former Justice Department antitrust official

Details: Competitors and corporate critics of the giants are already helping to shape the conversation around the issue, with anecdotal and quantitative evidence.

A recent House Judiciary Committee hearing on the power that platforms like Google and Facebook have over publishers included witnesses from News Corp. and the News Media Alliance, which represents many news organizations.

  • “Although publishers technically have a choice to withhold their content from online platforms, that choice is not a meaningful one,” said David Pitofsky, News Corp.’s general counsel, in his prepared testimony. “The online platforms are simply too dominant.”
  • The News Media Alliance produced a report in advance of the hearing saying that Google had cost the news industry billions of dollars, although its methodology was heavily criticized.

On Sunday, the lyrics site Genius went public with concerns that Google had copied content from its site and displayed it in search results — which results in less traffic to the site itself.

  • “They have known about this for two years and it’s clearly unfair and anticompetitive,” said Ben Gross, Genius’ chief strategy officer, in an email.
  • Genius said that it intends to share information about its concerns with the Justice Department.
  • "The lyrics displayed in information boxes on Google Search are licensed from a variety of sources and are not scraped from sites on the web," said Google in a statement. "We're investigating this issue with our data partners and if we find that partners are not upholding good practices we will end our agreements."

The bigger picture: There are a wide variety of competitors to the four tech giants, across a range of industries from retailers to small businesses.

  • Many of them have already made their case to the FTC as part of a process of public hearings on antitrust and consumer protection, as the New York Times noted this week.

Yes, but: Speaking up can come at a cost to smaller companies, including angering the powerful corporate giants and signaling to investors that you might go under without government intervention.

  • That’s why investigators often give competitors a venue to press their case in secret.

The bottom line: Public complaints about Big Tech that arise if investigations ramp up — whether in congressional hearings or the press — may only be the tip of the iceberg.

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