Citation[edit | edit source]
Wilson C. Freeman & Jay B. Sykes, Antitrust and "Big Tech" (CRS Report R45910) (Sept. 11, 2019) (full-text).
Overview[edit | edit source]
Over the past decade, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple ("Big Tech" or the "Big Four") have revolutionized the internet economy and affected the daily lives of billions of people worldwide. While these companies are responsible for momentous technological breakthroughs and massive wealth creation, they have also received scrutiny related to their privacy practices, dissemination of harmful content and misinformation, alleged political bias, and — as relevant here — potentially anticompetitive conduct.
In June 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) — the agencies responsible for enforcing the federal antitrust laws — agreed to divide responsibility over investigations of the Big Four's business practices. Under these agreements, the DOJ reportedly has authority over investigations of Google and Apple, while the FTC will look into Facebook and Amazon.
The DOJ and FTC investigations into Big Tech will likely involve inquiries into whether the relevant companies have illegally monopolized their respective markets or engaged in anticompetitive mergers or acquisitions. Under Section 2 of the Sherman Act, it is illegal for a company with monopoly power to engage in exclusionary conduct to maintain or enhance that power. And under Section 7 of the Clayton Act, companies may not engage in mergers or acquisitions that “substantially lessen” competition.
The scope of the market in which a defendant-company operates is a key question in both monopolization and merger cases. The Supreme Court has identified certain qualitative factors that courts may consider in defining the scope of relevant antitrust markets. The DOJ and FTC have also adopted a quantitative market-definition inquiry known as the "hypothetical monopolist" or "SSNIP" test, according to which a relevant antitrust market consists of the smallest grouping of products for which a hypothetical monopolist could profitably impose a 5% price increase. The application of this quantitative inquiry to certain zero-price technology markets may present courts and regulators with important issues of first impression. However, commentators have proposed a variety of methods by which regulators could assess the scope of the markets in which the Big Four operate.
In addition to demonstrating that a defendant-company possesses monopoly power in a properly defined market, monopolization plaintiffs must show that the defendant engaged in exclusionary conduct to maintain or enhance that power. In investigating allegedly exclusionary behavior by the Big Four, antitrust regulators may be evaluating
- Google Search's alleged discrimination against Google's vertical rivals, certain tying and exclusive-dealing arrangements related to the company's Android mobile operating system, and exclusive and restrictive-dealing arrangements related to the company's ad-brokering platform;
- Amazon's alleged predatory pricing and discrimination against third-party merchants on its online marketplace;
- Facebook's allegedly anticompetitive pattern of acquiring promising potential competitors, including its acquisitions of the photo-sharing service Instagram and the messaging service WhatsApp; and
- Apple's decision to design its mobile-operating system to prevent customers from downloading iPhone apps from any source other than the company's App Store.
While the antitrust action surrounding Big Tech is currently concentrated in the executive branch and the courts, digital competition issues have also attracted the interest of Congress, which may pursue legislation to address anticompetitive conduct by large technology companies. Specifically, some commentators have proposed that Congress adopt changes to certain elements of antitrust law to promote competition in technology markets, including modifications to predatory-pricing doctrine, exclusionary-design law, and merger review. In contrast, other commentators have advocated sector-specific competition regulation for large technology companies that would include data-portability rules, interoperability standards, nondiscrimination requirements, and separation regimes.