Google and Facebook’s antitrust problem is getting much more serious

In July, when the Federal Trade Commission settled with Facebook over privacy issues, I wondered whether our strange era of regulation would amount to anything more than a round of fines and promises to do better from the tech platforms. Congress has made little progress toward passing the sort of privacy legislation that could expand the FTC’s authority, and the Trump Administration’s antitrust inquiries have been polluted by the perception that they are delibrated to punish the president’s political enemies rather than level the competitive playing field.

But in the weeks since, new regulatory threats to the tech platforms have appeared at a steady clip. On Friday, the attorney general of New York announced that seven other states and the District of Columbia would join her in a new antitrust investigation of Facebook. Here’s Taylor Telford and Tony Romm in the Washington Post:

James will work with the attorneys general of Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee and the District of Columbia on an inquiry focused on “Facebook’s dominance in the industry and the potential anti-competitive conduct stemming from that dominance,” according to a news release.

“Even the largest social media platform in the world must follow the law and respect consumers. I am proud to be leading a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general in investigating whether Facebook has stifled competition and put users at risk,” James said in a news release. “We will use every investigative tool at our disposal to determine whether Facebook’s actions may have endangered consumer data, reduced the quality of consumers’ choices, or increased the price of advertising.”

Then today, an even bigger hammer dropped. A whopping 50 attorneys general — 48 states plus Puerto Rico and DC — announced they would join Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in an antitrust investigation of Google. (California and Alabama are sitting this one out.) Here’s Lauren Feiner at CNBC:

“When there is no longer a free market or competition, this increases prices, even when something is marketed as free, and harms consumers,” said Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, a Republican. “Is something really free if we are increasingly giving over our privacy information? Is something really free if online ad prices go up based on one company’s control?”

The big tech platforms now face two Congressional, six state and local, and eight federal investigations. That’s according to a handy new tracker from the New York Times, which I encourage you to bookmark. (I did!) In a companion piece, Jack Nicas, Karen Weise and Mike Isaac break down the nature of the investigations into Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. While the details vary, anti-competitive behavior is at the heart of many of the inquiries.

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