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DOJ Opens Sweeping Anti-Trust Probe of Big Tech Firms

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, April 11, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

The Department of Justice is opening a sweeping anti-trust review to determine whether the country’s leading technology firms are stifling competition in violation of federal law, it announced Tuesday.

“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 of the Antitrust Division said in a statement announcing the remarkably broad probe. “The Department’s antitrust review will explore these important issues.”

The Antitrust Division will work to determine whether companies such as Facebook, Google, and Apple have “reduced competition, stifled innovation, or otherwise harmed consumers” as they’ve grown dramatically in recent years and begun expanding into various industries by acquiring smaller potential competitors. The Federal Trade Commission is conducting a separate, more limited investigation into potential monopolistic abuses by Facebook and Amazon.

The newly announced probe serves as the latest indication that the Trump administration has begun to take seriously the mounting Republican opposition to the nation’s largest tech companies. Led by Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, a number of populist Republicans have railed in recent months against Google and other dominant Silicon Valley firms over privacy abuses and the alleged censorship of socially conservative voices on their platforms.

During his Senate confirmation hearing in January, Attorney General William Barr hinted that he had begun to consider whether the largest tech firms posed a threat to competition.

“I don’t think big is necessarily bad, but I think a lot of people wonder how such huge behemoths that now exist in Silicon Valley have taken shape under the nose of the anti-trust enforcers,” Barr told lawmakers. “You can win that place in the marketplace without violating the anti-trust laws, but I want to find out more about that dynamic.”

The FTC fined Facebook $5 billion over the sale of user data to Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 campaign. It remains unclear what actions the DOJ is prepared to take should it identify clear abuses.

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