Antitrust probe of Facebook may be first step against Big Tech

New York Attorney General Letitia James. (File/AP)
Updated 07 September 2019

Antitrust probe of Facebook may be first step against Big Tech

  • The case may be the first in a series of antitrust actions against Big Tech firms

WASHINGTON: A coalition of US states unveiled on Friday an antitrust investigation of Facebook, the first of what is expected to be a wave of action against dominant technology firms.
New York state Attorney General Letitia James announced the action on behalf of seven other states and the District of Columbia to probe “whether Facebook has stifled competition and put users at risk.”
The case may be the first in a series of antitrust actions against Big Tech firms and highlights growing “techlash,” based on worries about platforms which control the flow of online information and dominate key economic sectors.
“We will use every investigative tool at our disposal to determine whether Facebook’s actions may have endangered consumer data, reduced the quality of consumers’ choices, or increased the price of advertising,” James said.
Joining the action were attorneys general of Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, and Tennessee, said James.
Earlier this year the US Justice Department said it would launch a “review” of major online platforms to determine if they have stifled innovation or reduced competition.
It was not immediately clear if the states would be working in coordination with federal officials.
Facebook offered no immediate comment, but in the past it has claimed it is not a monopoly and that consumers have many choices for how to connect with people online.
The new probe “shows how unease with large tech companies is spreading beyond Congress and the federal government agencies to the states,” said Michael Carrier, professor of antitrust law at Rutgers University.
“With each passing day, there are greater fears about these companies controlling our online lives.”
Yet the legal basis for an antitrust action remains unclear, said Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University.
“It remains to be seen if the (attorneys general) have any merit to their complaints or if they will be conducting a fishing expedition hoping to find some damning evidence,” Goldman said.
“Companies as large as Google or Facebook probably have minor problematic practices the AGs could target, but I’m still waiting for any evidence that would support more structural challenges to the Internet giants’ practices.”
A separate coalition of states was set to launch another antitrust initiative, with Google reportedly a target.
The office of the Texas attorney general scheduled an event Monday in Washington with a “broad coalition of states” to unveil a probe into “whether large tech companies have engaged in anticompetitive behavior that stifled competition, restricted access, and harmed consumers.”
Google spokesman Jose Castaneda said the company’s services “help people every day, create more choice for consumers, and support thousands of jobs and small businesses across the country” and pledged to “work constructively with regulators.”
Maurice Stucke, a University of Tennessee law professor, said he expects one of the areas being investigated will be online advertising markets, which are dominated by Google and Facebook.
“This is a great area to look at because the market has been criticized as being opaque,” Stucke said.
Stucke said the investigations may go further by looking at how tech platforms control data, potentially examining “the intersection between competition law and privacy.”
Amazon and Apple may also be in the crosshairs. Critics have complained that Amazon wields too much power in online retail, and that Apple may disadvantage rivals offering services in its app store.
In the European Union, Google has faced a series of antitrust actions and Amazon is now being targeted by enforcers.
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has made a breakup of the big tech firms a part of her campaign platform.
But some analysts say the case against the tech firms faces challenges because the companies have in many cases provided services for free and brought prices down, making it hard to prove they harmed “consumer welfare,” a longstanding judicial precedent.
Jessica Melugin of the Competitive Enterprise Institute said the state officials are stretching the limits of antitrust.
“This sort of high-profile activism may benefit state AGs’ political ambitions, but impose harmful costs on consumers, businesses, and the economy,” she said in a statement.
But Stucke said it would be wrong to view antitrust law as solely focused on consumer prices, and that it may be applied to questions of competition and innovation.
The probes could end up with a variety of outcomes including fines, restrictions on conduct or a breakup, Stucke maintained.
“You’d have to show how the remedy would address the concerns,” he said.


Big oil feels the heat on climate

Updated 29 min 37 sec ago

Big oil feels the heat on climate

  • Trump singles out ‘prophets of doom’ for attack as industry leader promises global forum: ‘We will be different’
  • Greenpeace told the Davos gathering that the world’s largest banks, funds and insurance companies had invested $1.4 trillion in fossil fuel companies since the Paris climate deal

LONDON: Teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg slammed inaction over climate change as the global oil industry found itself under intense scrutiny on the opening day of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The teenage campaigner went head to head with US President Donald Trump, who dismissed climate “prophets of doom” in his speech.
She in turn shrugged off the US president’s pledge to join the economic forum’s initiative to plant 1 trillion trees to help capture carbon dioxide.
“Planting trees is good, of course, but it’s nowhere near enough,” Thunberg said. “It cannot replace mitigation. We need to start listening to the science and treat this crisis with the importance it deserves,” the 17-year-old said.
The 50th meeting of the World Economic Forum was dominated by the global threat posed by climate change and the carbon economy.
The environmental focus of Davos 2020 caps a year when carbon emissions from fossil fuels hit a record high, and the devastating effects of bushfires in Australia and other climate disasters dominated the news.
Oil company executives from the Gulf and elsewhere are in the spotlight at this year’s Davos meeting as they come under increased pressure to demonstrate how they are reducing their carbon footprint.
“We are not only fighting for our industry’s life but fighting for people to understand the things that we are doing,” said Vicki Hollub, CEO of Occidental, the US-based oil giant with extensive oil operations in the Gulf. “As an industry when we could be different — we will be different.”

‘Planting trees is good, but nowhere near enough,’ activist Greta Thunberg told Davos. (Shutterstock)

She said the company was getting close to being able to sequester significant volumes of CO2 in the US Permian Basin, the heartland of the American shale oil industry which is increasingly in competition with the conventional oil producers of the Arabian Gulf.
“The Permian Basin has the capacity to store 150 gigatons of CO2. That would be 28 years of emissions in the US. That’s the prize for us and that’s the opportunity. People say if you’re sequestering in an oil reservoir then you are producing more oil, but the reality is that it takes more CO2 to inject into a reservoir than the barrel of oil that it makes come out,” Hollub said.
The challenge Occidental and other oil companies face is to make investors understand what is happening in this area of carbon sequesteration, she added.
The investment community at Davos is also looking hard at the oil industry in the face of mounting investor concerns.
Greenpeace told the Davos gathering that the world’s largest banks, funds and insurance companies had invested $1.4 trillion in fossil fuel companies since the Paris climate deal. It accused some of these groups of failing to live up to the World Economic Forum goal of “improving the state of the world.”