House Judiciary lawmakers on Monday launched a sweeping antitrust investigation of the nation’s largest tech companies, including Google and Facebook, opening a new front against an industry that’s increasingly under siege in Washington and Europe.
The bipartisan probe, led by the panel’s Democrats, will explore whether big tech companies have amassed monopoly power and engaged in anti-competitive behavior by stifling, cloning or acquiring rivals or by giving an unfair advantage to their own products on their platforms.
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The action comes amid rising scrutiny for tech titans like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple from regulators and policymakers both stateside and abroad. Critics across the political spectrum have hit at the companies for, they maintain, accumulating and abusing outsize power. Some have in turn tied the scale of the companies to other concerns involving topics like data privacy and the policing of speech.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who chairs the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee leading the effort, told reporters Monday his panel will conduct “a broad investigation of these digital platforms … with an eye toward developing kind of a deeper understanding of how the market is failing, why the internet is broken and why it’s not functioning well, and then looking at what we need to do in terms of legislative action.”
The probe launches with bipartisan buy-in. “As tech has expanded its market share, more and more questions have arisen about whether the market remains competitive,” House Judiciary ranking member Doug Collins (R-Ga.) said in a statement. “Our bipartisan look at competition in the digital markets gives us the chance to answer these questions and, if necessary, to take action.”
The congressional investigation and recent moves by Trump regulators to lay the groundwork for future antitrust probes dramatically raise the stakes for tech companies, which face constant criticism on both sides of the Atlantic over their handling of everything from user privacy to hate speech, disinformation and political content.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate, has already called for breaking up tech giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon by unwinding some of their big acquisitions, saying they have crippled competition and harmed startups and small businesses. Fellow presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has also called for splitting up Facebook, as has Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes.
The Judiciary probe, Congress’ first major antitrust investigation into a specific sector in decades, gives an outlet to House Democrats’ pent-up frustration over an industry they view as out of control and thinly regulated. By launching a formal inquiry, the panel will be able to request documents and compel company leaders to testify at depositions.
Cicilline said the fact-finding mission will inform recommendations his panel plans to issue on possible antitrust legislation and regulatory action at the conclusion of the probe. The subcommittee will aim to wrap up the investigation before the 116th Congress adjourns, he said.
Cicilline declined to rule out calling for the break-up of top tech tech firms as one of those recommendations. “I wouldn’t say anything is off the table,” he said when asked about that prospect, though he added he views breaking up a tech company as an “action of last resort.”
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), who chairs the full House Judiciary Committee, notified representatives at Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple about the forthcoming probe earlier Monday, top Cicilline adviser Slade Bond told reporters.
Cicilline name-checked the first three of those companies as a “significant part” of the investigation, but said the committee will examine competition across the sector. “It’s really not about a particular company as much as it is about the digital marketplace broadly,” he said.
In concert with the probe, the antitrust subcommittee plans to hold hearings on tech and antitrust and may look to bring in CEOs from top firms, Cicilline added. “It would be hard to imagine that you could do this investigation thoroughly and carefully without the active participation of the leaders of these large technology platforms,” he said.
Over the past year and a half, lawmakers have repeatedly summoned tech executives including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai to testify on Capitol Hill about everything from election meddling on social media to allegations of anti-conservative bias by tech platforms. The sessions produced a series of high-profile grillings but have yet to result in substantial legislative action in Congress.
Cicilline said he hoped tech firms would voluntarily comply with requests for documents and testimonies, but is prepared to issue subpoenas tocompel them to cooperate if not.
Advocates for tougher antitrust enforcement have long maligned U.S. regulators for failing to rein in major tech companies, while European Union officials have launched numerous investigations and leveled record fines against industry giants including Google.
Reports emerged late Friday that the Justice Department could launch a probe into Google, news that heralded further signs that the Trump administration is preparing to apply more scrutiny to the nation’s tech firms. The DOJ is claiming jurisdiction over Google and Apple,while the Federal Trade Commission is doing the same with Amazon and Facebook, according to news reports and sources familiar with the cases.
Still, Cicilline was skeptical that any investigations that stem from those moves will produce substantive action. “We also have a responsibility to make sure that they’re properly resourced to do that work, but they have to be inclined to do it too, and I don’t have a lot of confidence in this administration’s view on these issues,” he told reporters.
The congressional investigation comes as lawmakers in both chambers negotiate legislation to impose privacy rules on tech companies.
Facebook is also negotiating with the FTC to resolve a separate investigation into its privacy practices that was sparked by the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. The company said in Aprilthat it expects to shell out between $3 billion and $5 billion to settle that probe.