Global regulators’ net tightens around big tech

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US competition regulators have carved up responsibility for investigations into the power of the four biggest American technology companies, in a move that heralds significant new scrutiny of their business practices.

While it remains unclear what issues the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission plan to examine, or even whether they will launch formal probes, the development is a decisive shift for the tech sector.

For many years, the primary antitrust risk for Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple had emanated from the EU. Perhaps no longer. Here are some of the complaints that have been examined so far.

Google

The EU has led the antitrust challenge to Google for almost a decade. Though it has levied three big fines, Brussels has done little to loosen the company’s grip on web search, smartphone software and online advertising.

Search: Google was fined €2.4bn in 2017 for using its search engine to steer traffic to its in-house shopping service, a case that dated back to 2010. Rival comparison shopping sites claim that changes made to appease the regulators have done nothing to send search traffic back their way.

Android: A €4.3bn fine in 2018 over Google’s use of the Android mobile operating system to promote its in-house services set a new record in the antitrust world. To resolve the complaint, Google offered to sell a version of Android (which was previously free) that was not tied to its services. Handset makers have yet to take it up on the offer.

Advertising: The EU completed its remaining investigation of Google in 2019 with a €1.5bn fine over a complaint that it barred websites that used its AdSense advertising service from taking adverts from rivals.

The US Federal Trade Commission held a two-year investigation into Google’s search engine but dropped the case in 2013, even though a staff report at the agency concluded the company was acting in anti-competitive ways.

Facebook

Facebook has attracted attention from campaigners and antitrust regulators over its dominance of the digital advertising market, perceived monopoly on internet users’ personal data and treatment of third parties.

Earlier this year Germany’s antitrust watchdog ruled that the social network needed consent from users before pooling its data with personal information from other subsidiaries such as Instagram, as well as third-party apps. The country’s Federal Cartel Office argued that Facebook had abused its dominant market position in its data collection practices and enforced inappropriate terms on its users.

Australia’s competition authority found that the dominant market positions of Facebook and Google in news and advertising demanded greater monitoring and potential remedies such as unbundling products and enforcing new privacy rules.

In the US there have been no actions launched. But David Cicilline, chair of the House of Representatives’ antitrust subcommittee, has urged the FTC to investigate Facebook’s acquisitions of rivals Instagram and WhatsApp in 2012 and 2014, respectively.

He has also called on the watchdog to look into whether the company sought to stifle competitors, after revelations that it purposefully restricted the services and data it made available to Vine, a video app launched by Twitter that has since been shut down.

Amazon

Amazon is under scrutiny for its perceived dominance in ecommerce. Its dual role as a retailer and a marketplace for other sellers has raised questions over whether it uses its clout and vast amount of sales data to benefit itself and disadvantage the third-party sellers, who make up more than half of items sold.

The EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager last year launched a preliminary inquiry into how Amazon uses data about its merchants to develop its own private-label products and make other decisions. Separately, competition authorities in Germany, Austria and Italy are examining whether the company’s contracts with the sellers who use its platform are an abuse of its market power.

Earlier this year India took aim at Amazon’s dual role, rolling out new ecommerce regulations prohibiting foreign-owned marketplaces from selling goods sold by businesses in which they hold equity stakes of more than 25 per cent. Amazon pulled products from its Indian website when the rule went into effect on February 1, although they later returned once the company cut its stake in some sellers.

US regulators have not taken antitrust action yet, but the company’s critics have become more vocal in recent years. Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has vowed to break Amazon up and introduce legislation preventing companies from operating a marketplace and participating in that marketplace.

Apple

Apple’s small share of overall smartphone sales has insulated it from antitrust challenge, despite the huge profits it reaps from the iPhone. But that has not stopped rivals from complaining, and regulators seem ready to take up the case.

The EU is preparing to launch a formal investigation into Apple’s App Store practices, the Financial Times reported in early May. The expected review follows a complaint from Spotify, which claimed Apple was deliberately hurting competitors by charging a 30 per cent commission for subscriptions sold through the store.

Apple also lost a case in the US in 2013. The justice department had challenged the company’s agreement with six major book publishers to set the price of ebooks, a tactic designed to counter Amazon’s policy of slashing prices to draw users to its Kindle store.