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House Judiciary Committee launches 'top-to-bottom' antitrust probe of big tech

The House Judiciary committee said Monday it is launching a "top-to-bottom" antitrust investigation of the tech industry, including Amazon, Apple, Facebook a...

Posted: Jun 4, 2019 3:53 AM
Updated: Jun 4, 2019 3:55 AM

The House Judiciary committee said Monday it is launching a "top-to-bottom" antitrust investigation of the tech industry, including Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, deepening a crisis for Silicon Valley's largest players as they face mounting scrutiny in Washington over their power and influence.

The Democratic-led investigation comes as the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission are taking their first steps toward a potential probe of their own into Google, according to three people familiar with the matter. Regulators have negotiated to divide oversight of the tech industry between the two agencies in recent weeks, these people said. The two agencies have also reportedly split up oversight of Amazon, Apple and Facebook.

Long the darling of investors and politicians, the tech industry has come under intense pressure amid an array of privacy missteps, disinformation scandals and allegations of anti-competitive behavior. Industry critics such as Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a presidential candidate, have called for tough new regulations and demanded that the companies be broken up.

The industry probe will be wide-ranging. Rhode Island Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, who heads the panel's subcommittee on antitrust and is leading the investigation, said it is aimed less at specific companies than at the "tremendous concentration of market power" held by Silicon Valley's most dominant platforms.

Key areas for the investigation include the tech industry's impact on local journalism, consumer privacy and the ability for new startups to enter the marketplace, according to Cicilline. At the heart of the inquiry are concerns about what Cicilline called the companies' "tremendous market power," which in some cases he feels has led to their accumulating substantial political power.

Committee officials have notified Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook of the coming investigation. Cicilline said he wants to hear from senior tech executives, and that he won't hesitate to issue subpoenas to companies that fail to cooperate. Amazon and Google declined to comment. Apple and Facebook didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The investigation is also partly a shot at the antitrust agencies, which he said have been too slow to act.

"I don't have a lot of confidence that these agencies will get the job done," Cicilline said.

While Congress lacks the power to break up big tech companies or levy fines, it has the ability to compel testimony from executives, gather documents and force public debate.

The investigation will likely result in a report outlining possible policy recommendations, Ciciline said, and could lead to new legislation in the coming months. According to Ciciline, this is the first time Congress has launched a significant antitrust investigation in decades.

"The open internet has delivered enormous benefits to Americans, including a surge of economic opportunity, massive investment, and new pathways for education online," House Judiciary chairman Jerrold Nadler said. "But there is growing evidence that a handful of gatekeepers have come to capture control over key arteries of online commerce, content, and communications."

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