Like Europe before it, the US government looks ready to try reining in its technology giants.
However, doing so might be more difficult than it seems.
The US Department of Justice on Tuesday opened a sweeping antitrust investigation of major US technology companies and whether their online platforms have hurt competition, suppressed innovation or otherwise harmed consumers.
The probe would take into account “widespread concerns” about social media, search engines and online retail services, the department said.
“Without the discipline of meaningful market-based competition, digital platforms may act in ways that are not responsive to consumer demands,” US Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division Makan Delrahim said in a statement.
“The department’s antitrust review will explore these important issues,” he said.
The terse, but momentous announcement follows months of concern in the US Congress and elsewhere over the sway of firms such as Alphabet Inc’s Google, Facebook Inc and Amazon.com Inc.
US lawmakers and Democratic presidential candidates have called for stricter regulation or even breakups of the big tech companies, which have drawn intense scrutiny following scandals involving compromised user privacy, security lapses and misinformation and extremism that flourished on their platforms.
Facebook is awaiting a significant judgement from the Federal Trade Commission over its privacy practices, one that would reportedly include a US$5 billion fine and impose other limits on its operations.
The commission also reportedly plans to hand Google a multimillion-dollar fine over its handling of children’s information on YouTube.
Europe has investigated and fined a number of major US tech companies over the past several years.
“It seems like the nation’s law enforcement agencies are finally waking up to the threat posed by big tech,” said Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which has criticized Amazon for stifling independent businesses.
Mitchell last week testified at a US House of Representatives hearing.
US President Donald Trump has also repeatedly criticized the big tech companies by name in the past few months.
He frequently asserts, without evidence, that they are biased against him and conservatives in general.
However, Big Tech could also present a difficult target, as interpretations of US antitrust law do not obviously apply to companies offering inexpensive goods or free online services.
The department did not name specific companies in its announcement.
The investigation mirrors a bipartisan probe of Big Tech undertaken by the House Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law.
Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline, a Democrat, has sharply criticized the conduct of Silicon Valley giants and said that legislative or regulatory changes might be needed.
He has called breaking up the companies a last resort.
Major tech companies already facing congressional scrutiny declined to comment on the department probe.
Amazon and Facebook had no comment. Apple Inc and Google referred inquiries to public statements by their executives.
Shares of Facebook, Amazon and Apple were down slightly in after-hours trading on Tuesday.
Traditional US antitrust law focuses on dominant businesses that harm consumers, typically defined as price-gouging and similar behaviors.
However, many tech companies offer free products that are paid for by a largely invisible trade in the personal data gleaned from those services.
Others, such as Amazon, offer consistently low prices on a wide array of merchandise.
“That is going to be a tough one for [regulators] to prove,” University of Pennsylvania law professor Herbert Hovenkamp said.
Beyond that, the companies could face scrutiny for buying up smaller rivals that might be a threat to their business.
Last week, Cicilline accused industry giants of creating a “start-up kill zone” to insulate them from competition.
For instance, Google bought YouTube in 2006, when it was still a fledging video site struggling to survive an onslaught of copyright infringement lawsuits, and acquired the technology for its now-dominant Android software for smartphones in an even smaller deal.
Facebook snapped up Instagram — now the fastest-growing part of its business — in its infancy, and Apple bought the technology powering its ubiquitous Siri assistant.
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