FTC launches task force to monitor competition among tech companies

FTC launches task force to monitor competition among tech companies
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The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Tuesday announced the launch of a task force aimed at monitoring competition among the country's tech companies.

The task force, which will consist of current officials with the FTC's Bureau of Competition including 17 staff attorneys, will work to "identify and investigate potential anticompetitive conduct," the bureau's director, Bruce Hoffman, told reporters.

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Hoffman said the group will look into mergers that have already been approved as well as prospective mergers. The task force will also look into "nascent competitor acquisitions" – instances in which large tech companies buy smaller firms that could become their competition later on.

FTC Chairman Joe Simons called the task force the "next step" in the commission's work on competition within the technology industry. The agency has held multiple hearings into the issue.

“Technology markets, which are rapidly evolving and touch so many other sectors of the economy, raise distinct challenges for antitrust enforcement,” Hoffman said in a statement. “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.”

FTC officials declined to comment on specific mergers that the task force could look at retrospectively, but Facebook, Google and Amazon have each faced escalating antitrust scrutiny over the past several years. 

It is an open question whether the country's antitrust laws could be used to break up or regulate tech platforms. Regulators would have to provide evidence that their practices damage competition or harm consumers.

The FTC in 2012 closed its investigation into Facebook's acquisition of image-sharing platform Instagram, allowing the deal to proceed as proposed. But Hoffman told reporters on Tuesday that the task force will "consider transactions that have occurred in the digital space in the past to determine if any of those might be good subjects for an investigation." 

He said the FTC will have a "full panoply of remedies available" if any merger is deemed improper, including breaking up the merger firm or spinning off new competitors "that would recreate the pre-merger state of competition." 

A coalition of advocacy groups last month called for the FTC to require Facebook to "unwind" the acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram. 

"The companies should be reestablished as independent entities and Facebook should be required to disgorge the personal data unlawfully acquired from those firms," the advocates wrote.