DOJ opens antitrust inquiry into top tech companies

DOJ opens antitrust inquiry into top tech companies
© Greg Nash

The Department of Justice (DOJ) on Tuesday announced it is launching an investigation into whether the country's largest tech companies have stifled competition or harmed consumers, marking the department's widest-ranging inquiry into potential tech antitrust violations yet.

The DOJ's antitrust division is leading the probe, surveying "whether and how market-leading online platforms have achieved market power and are engaging in practices that have reduced competition, stifled innovation, or otherwise harmed consumers," the DOJ said in a statement. 

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The inquiry emerges as Silicon Valley is facing intensifying scrutiny from Washington, including looming record penalties from federal regulators and a separate antitrust investigation by bipartisan House lawmakers. 

Facebook, Google and Amazon — some of the largest and most powerful tech companies in the world — could all be implicated in the DOJ's probe. 

The department will "consider the widespread concerns that consumers, businesses, and entrepreneurs have expressed about search, social media, and some retail services online," according to the statement.

Google dominates global search services, Facebook owns three of the top social media platforms, and Amazon is a leading player in online retail. 

“Without the discipline of meaningful market-based competition, digital platforms may act in ways that are not responsive to consumer demands,” Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, who helms the antitrust division, said in a statement. “The Department’s antitrust review will explore these important issues.”

Delrahim, who will head the investigation, lobbied on Google's behalf in 2007 when it was facing antitrust scrutiny over its acquisition of DoubleClick, a top online advertising company that has boosted the company's dominance in digital ads. Delrahim reported a $100,000 paycheck from Google that year.

He also lobbied on behalf of Apple in 2006 and 2007 on patent reform. 

Delrahim's former lobbying credentials have prompted some Democratic lawmakers, including 2020 contender Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenPossible GOP challenger says Trump doesn't doesn't deserve reelection, but would vote for him over Democrat Joe Biden faces an uncertain path The Memo: Trump pushes back amid signs of economic slowdown MORE (D-Mass.), to call for him to recuse himself from any tech probes.

Reports over the past several months have indicated the DOJ and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) divvied up oversight of the country's largest tech giants in preparation for potential investigations into the companies' enormous market power.

Amazon declined to comment on the DOJ antitrust probe.

A Google spokesperson pointed The Hill to recent testimony by Adam Cohen, Google's director of economic policy. 

Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month, Cohen argued that Google has helped create competition. "In the face of intense competition, we are proud of our record of continued innovation," Cohen told lawmakers. "We have created new competition in many sectors, and new competitive pressures often lead to concerns from rivals." 

Google dominates online search, holding about 92 percent of the world's search engine market share, according to some estimates.  

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

According to the DOJ, if investigators identify "violations of law ... the Department will proceed appropriately to seek redress."

A growing chorus of critics, including some lawmakers on Capitol Hill, have started to question whether the country's antitrust laws need to be updated to align with the changing online landscape.

Updated at 5:35 p.m.