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Congress Just Said Tech's Least Favorite Words: Antitrust Investigation

The House Judiciary Committee, and federal regulators, are sniffing around Silicon Valley

by Tim Marcin
Jun 4 2019, 1:28pm

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On Monday, Congress uttered the words that are sure to strike fear into the hearts of Silicon Valley’s tech giants: antitrust investigation.

The House Judiciary Committee announced it intended to take a thorough look into Facebook, Google and other major tech companies. Meanwhile, federal regulators were divvying up oversight of four tech giants: The New York Times reported the Justice Department agreed to handle potential antitrust probes involving Apple and Google, while the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) would handle Facebook and Amazon.

The tech giants have become popular targets for criticism in D.C., also drawing the ire of President Donald Trump and Democrats running for president. The House committee said it was concerned about the immense influence wielded by the largest tech companies.

“The era of self-regulation is over.”

“The growth of monopoly power across our economy is one of the most pressing economic and political challenges we face today,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), chairman of the Antitrust Subcommittee, in a statement. “After four decades of weak antitrust enforcement and judicial hostility to antitrust cases, it is critical that Congress step in to determine whether existing laws are adequate to tackle abusive conduct by platform gatekeepers or whether we need new legislation to respond to this challenge.”

If the lawmakers were to find evidence of anti-competitive behavior, they could then put pressure on the FTC and the Justice Department. It’s worth noting, however, that antitrust cases typically take a very long time to resolve and rarely result in a company being broken up.

The tech giants have come under regular fire for a series of missteps and the growing sense among the public that the companies deserve more scrutiny. Late last month, for instance, a doctored video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) Pelosi — altered to make it seem like she was slurring her words and confused — was spread across YouTube, Twitter and Facebook by right-wing accounts. YouTube took the video down, while Facebook opted to leave it up as it continued to go viral. There’s also, of course, the Mueller report, which detailed how Russia used the power of social media — and of Facebook, in particular — to spread disinformation.

“Unwarranted, concentrated economic power in the hands of a few is dangerous to democracy – especially when digital platforms control content,” said Pelosi. “The era of self-regulation is over.”

Cicilline said Democrats would be willing to use subpoenas to get the information they sought in the probe, and that tech officials could be called forward to testify publicly. The target, he told reporters, wasn’t one company but rather the system as it stands.

“[The] internet is broken,” he said.

Cover: Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers a speech at the VivaTech (Viva Technology) show in Paris, on May 24, 2018. (Sipa via AP Images)