President Trump has made no secret of the fact that he believes tech behemoths like Amazon are anti-competitive, job-killing monstrosities that should be broken up or at least see their influence curbed by regulators. And now, after stocking the FTC with critics of big tech, it appears the committee might be taking the first steps toward breaking up the big tech firms - or at least ensuring that they can't get any bigger.
With the committee still prepping what will reportedly be a "record breaking fine" over Facebook's failure to uphold a guarantee to safeguard user data, Bureau of Competition Director Bruce Hoffman and FTC Chairman Joe Simons announced the formation of a new task force that will scrutinize mergers in the tech space - and even review consummated deals.
The Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Competition announced the creation of a task force dedicated to monitoring competition in U.S. technology markets, investigating any potential anticompetitive conduct in those markets, and taking enforcement actions when warranted.
To create the Technology Task Force, the Bureau of Competition will draw upon existing staff and expertise to enhance the Bureau’s focus on technology-related sectors of the economy, including markets in which online platforms compete. The creation of this task force is modeled on the FTC’s successful Merger Litigation Task Force, launched in 2002 by then-Bureau of Competition Director Joe Simons. The 2002 task force reinvigorated the Commission’s hospital merger review program, and also sharpened the agency’s focus on merger enforcement in retail industries, particularly regarding matters involving food, beverages, and supermarkets.
Given the ever-expanding role of technology in the lives of Americans, the committee said it would make sense to ensure any future tie-ups "ensure consumers benefit from free and fair competition."
"The role of technology in the economy and in our lives grows more important every day," said FTC Chairman Joe Simons. "As I’ve noted in the past, it makes sense for us to closely examine technology markets to ensure consumers benefit from free and fair competition. Our ongoing Hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century are a crucial step to deepen our understanding of these markets and potential competitive issues. The Technology Task Force is the next step in that effort."
But - and this is key - the commission won't focus solely on proposed deals. Completed mergers might also come under the microscope, something that brings to mind the commission's investigation into Facebook's 2012 purchase of Instagram. Indeed, Amazon, Facebook and Google parent Alphabet are responsible for much of the M&A activity in Silicon Valley.
"Technology markets, which are rapidly evolving and touch so many other sectors of the economy, raise distinct challenges for antitrust enforcement," said Bureau Director Bruce Hoffman. "By centralizing our expertise and attention, the new task force will be able to focus on these markets exclusively – ensuring they are operating pursuant to the antitrust laws, and taking action where they are not."
In addition to examining industry practices and conducting law enforcement investigations, the Technology Task Force will, among other things, coordinate and consult with staff throughout the FTC on technology-related matters, including prospective merger reviews in the technology sector and reviews of consummated technology mergers.
The task force will consist of 17 lawyers who will work to "identify and investigate potential anticompetitive conduct". If nothing else, the formation of the task force has certainly put big tech on notice.