Feb 12, 2020 - Technology

Big Tech braces for sprawling FTC acquisitions review

Illustration of a spotlight on big tech

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The Federal Trade Commission announced Tuesday it will review the past decade of takeovers by tech giants Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft. Not only the large ones, but also the hundreds of smaller ones that didn't trigger automatic antitrust reviews.

Why it matters: Apparently the FTC thinks it has a technique for getting toothpaste back into the tube. And that's before one considers the knotty logistics of unwinding something like Facebook/Instagram or some random Google acqui-hire from 2015.

The big picture; Antitrust regulators typically get their way just by threatening to block a deal. But they've recently suffered two huge defeats when going after deep-pocketed tech defendants: DOJ on AT&T/Time Warner and state AGs on Sprint/T-Mobile. No pockets are deeper than the ones that FTC is now digging around in.

  • Worth noting: Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) just proposed to remove the FTC's antitrust function altogether. And it's notable that this announcement wasn't made in concert with DOJ, which today happens to be holding an antitrust workshop at Stanford University.

The state of play: This is going to take a while. Maybe even into a new presidential administration.

  • We're talking about tons of small, niche acquisitions that involve people who may no longer be involved with the participating companies, let alone acquired products that have since been mothballed.
  • It could also involve possible re-reviews of mega-deals like Microsoft/LinkedIn, Amazon/Whole Foods, Google/Nest, Facebook/WhatsApp, Apple/Beats, and more.

The bottom line: This could become a massive headache for the five target companies, but more "take some aspirin and a nap" than "go to the ER."

  • Corporate M&A sources have consistently told me that Washington D.C. rhetoric isn't having too much impact on their acquisition activities, believing that the bark is much worse than the bite.

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