Antitrust policy is fast becoming one of the most discussed issues in Washington, D.C., as the Trump administration gears up to launch reviews of the largest U.S. technology firms and potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidates intensify calls for more sweeping action against the sprawling corporations.
Congress is also getting in on the action, with the House Judiciary Committee opening on Monday a “top-to-bottom” investigation of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, among other digital companies.
The heightened scrutiny is reverberating through an industry that regulators and lawmakers largely let grow unabated to what critics argue are monopolistic positions in sectors like digital advertising, e-commerce and data collection.
Stocks for the four firms all fell on Monday amid news that the Federal Trade Commission is handling a review of Facebook and Amazon, while the Department of Justice will take Apple and Google.
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The companies have routinely pushed back on the notion that their substantial market shares are used to inappropriately block competition.
Apple CEO Tim Cook on Tuesday said “scrutiny is fair” but told CBS News that it’s unreasonable to think anyone “is gonna come to the conclusion that Apple’s a monopoly.”
In the past, Amazon has defended its market position as minimal compared to rivals. The e-commerce giant, for example, says it represents less than 4 percent of U.S. retail sales. Addressing concerns that the firm is blocking third-party sellers in favor of their own private labels, Amazon says its brands are only 1 percent of the total sales.
“To put it bluntly: Third-party sellers are kicking our first-party butt. Badly,” founder and CEO Jeff Bezos wrote in a recent letter to shareholders.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai previously argued that competition in the technology industry is greater than ever, while Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has bucked call for the social media giant to be broken up and instead advocated for tighter regulations on internet privacy.
Any antitrust probe is in the early stages and it remains unclear how far-reaching the Trump administration is willing to go to curb potentially nefarious behavior. Experts predict the industry to change some operations even without a legal impetus.
Key to the investigation could be top competitors of the four firms. The review into Google, for example, was reportedly spurred by complaints from over a dozen rivals who are preparing to assist the DOJ. While those grievances may have laid the groundwork for the probe, it won’t support any subsequent legal action from the federal government, experts say.
“There’s a time-honored tradition of competitors complaining about what their competitors are doing,” John Lopatka, former FTC official and current professor at Pennsylvania State University, told FOX Business. “Complaints from competitors tell us nothing about whether what Google is doing is good for consumers.”
While the White House gears up for what could be a multiyear review, some top Democrats are ready to take drastic steps.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is running to be the party’s 2020 presidential nominee, wants to break up Amazon, Google and Facebook.
Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats and is also running for the nomination, has called for a tougher antitrust stance in the agriculture industry, including breaking up perceived monopolies.
Other Democratic candidates, like Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, have taken a more measured stance. Booker, for example, took a jab at Warren, telling ABC News earlier this year that “a president shouldn't be running around, pointing at companies and saying break them up without any kind of process here.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, another potential presidential candidate, could have the loudest microphone among the large fields of Democrats vying for the White House. As chair of the Senate’s antitrust panel, she has taken a vocal position on recent mergers, including the $26.5 billion deal between T-Mobile and Sprint.
Unlike Warren, Klobuchar has resisted calling for big tech firms to be broken up. Instead, she introduced legislation to bolster antitrust laws and plans to release a book entitled “Antitrust” later this year.