On August 20, 2019, it was reported that the states are set to join forces to investigate Big Tech.
On the same day, Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim of the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) said the DOJ is working with a group of more than a dozen state attorneys general as it investigates the market power of major technology companies. Delrahim said at a tech conference that the government is studying acquisitions by major tech companies that were previously approved as part of a broad antitrust review announced in July of major tech firms with significant market power. “Those are some of the questions that are being raised… whether those were nascent competitors that may or may not have been wise to approve,” he said.
On July 23, the DOJ said it was opening a broad investigation into whether major digital technology firms engaged in anticompetitive practices, including concerns raised about “search, social media, and some retail services online.” The investigations appear to be focused on Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Amazon.com, Inc. and Facebook, Inc. (“Facebook”), as well as potentially Apple Inc.
More than a dozen states are expected to announce in the coming weeks that they are launching a formal probe. “I think it’s safe to say more than a dozen or so state attorneys general (that) have expressed an interest in the subject matter,” Delrahim said. In July, eight state AGs met with U.S. Attorney General William Barr to discuss the effect of big tech companies on competition, and various antitrust actions.
On August 19, the New York Attorney General’s office said it is continuing to “engage in bipartisan conversations about the unchecked power of large tech companies.” North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein is also “participating in bipartisan conversations about this issue,” his office said. The DOJ is looking not only at price effects, but also at innovation and quality, and the next steps in its broad antitrust review would be seeking documents and other information. Delrahim also said that after the July announcement, the companies under investigation “immediately reached out to work with us in a cooperative manner to provide information that we need as far as the investigation. In June, the FTC told Facebook it had opened an antitrust investigation. Last month, the FTC resolved a separate privacy probe into Facebook’s practices after the company agreed to pay a $5 billion penalty.
The states joining the DOJ’s and FTC’s investigations are not a surprise. As many as 39 states have been raising antitrust concerns about the big tech firms with both the DOJ and FTC. They have similar concerns regarding big tech as the federal antitrust agencies. The issues relate to whether the markets for online advertising, search, social media, app sales and certain retail sectors are currently competitive. The state AGs involvement in these investigations adds another layer of complexity for Google, Facebook, and Amazon. This action by the state AGs should remind everyone that sound antitrust enforcement is not just a federal affair. Indeed, many of the seminal antitrust cases including cases creating key principles of monopolization and merger law were brought by state attorneys generals.
State attorneys generals use the power under federal and their own state statutes to protect consumers against anticompetitive and fraudulent conduct in credit card, pharmaceutical, computer and many other markets crucial to consumers.
States have significant advantages over federal enforcers. They are closer to the market and consumers and recognize the direct harm to consumers. They have the ability to secure monetary damages. States are often customers and victims of anticompetitive behavior. State enforcers can bring combined antitrust and consumer protection cases. And although each state has limited antitrust and consumer protection resources, states increasingly are using multi-state task forces to investigate and prosecute unlawful conduct.