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US regulators probing tech acquisitions

LOOKING BACK:The FTC and the US Justice Department said that five major tech firms have been aggressively purchasing potential rivals to suppress competition

AP, WASHINGTON

US federal regulators are ramping up their investigation of the market dominance of giant technology companies, demanding detailed information on five companies’ acquisitions of smaller firms back to 2010.

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Tuesday announced the move, issuing orders to Facebook Inc, Amazon.com Inc, Apple Inc, Microsoft Corp and Google’s parent Alphabet Inc. Hundreds of takeovers of smaller companies are involved.

FTC Chairman Joseph Simons said that as a result of the review, the government might require tech giants to unwind earlier acquisitions and divest their assets if it found breaches of antitrust law.

“All of our options are on the table,” Simons said in a conference call with reporters. “If there are some transactions that are problematic, then we have that opportunity and that ability to go back and challenge” them.

Short of requiring divesting pieces of companies, other options could include putting assets into a separate company unit or mandating changes in how the companies conduct business, Simons said.

The review is focused on acquisitions with a smaller value, about US$100 million or less, that did not trigger government reporting requirements for the companies.

However, Simons said that the regulators are interested in tech industry mergers of all sizes. The FTC staff also would look into whether companies might have manipulated the value of some acquisitions to evade the reporting requirements, he said.

The FTC, the US Department of Justice and a US House committee have been investigating the conduct of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple, and whether they aggressively bought smaller potential rivals to suppress competition and hurt consumers. Some critics have pointed to Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp, for example, as deals that should be questioned.

The popular messaging services are among about 70 companies that Facebook has acquired over the past 15 years or so, giving it what critics say is massive market power that has enabled it to snuff out competition.

The five FTC commissioners voted unanimously to issue the so-called special orders to the tech companies. The agency is asking the companies for information and documents on the terms, scope, structure and purpose of acquisitions made between Jan. 1, 2010, and Dec. 31 last year.

A Republican commissioner, Christine Wilson, and a Democrat, Rohit Chopra, said in a separate statement that they supported the demand for information on the companies’ previous acquisitions.

However, they said the agency also should study how tech companies’ targeted advertising practices affect the collection, use and sharing of consumers’ personal data.

Apart from the government and congressional investigations, state attorneys general from both political parties are conducting antitrust probes of Google and Facebook.

Microsoft on Tuesday said it looks forward to working with the FTC to answer its questions. A spokesperson for Facebook declined comment on the FTC action. Spokespeople for Google and Amazon said the companies had no immediate comment; an Apple spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

David Cicilline, a Democratic representative and chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law, who is leading the panel’s probe, called the FTC’s new action “an important step in correcting the decades of inaction by antitrust enforcement agencies that have led to consolidation in the digital marketplace and across almost all sectors of our economy.”

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