50 US Attorney Generals sign-up to Google antitrust investigation

Usually, when you put 50 lawyers in a room together, it’s a bloodbath, but Google has seemingly done the impossible; united them all behind a single cause.

Led by Ken Paxton, the Attorney General representing the State of Texas, the coalition brings all except two State Attorney General’s on board, California and Alabama, as well as the legal minds representing Washington DC and Puerto Rico.

“Now, more than ever, information is power, and the most important source of information in Americans’ day-to-day lives is the internet,” said Paxton. “When most Americans think of the internet, they no doubt think of Google.

“There is nothing wrong with a business becoming the biggest game in town if it does so through free market competition, but we have seen evidence that Google’s business practices may have undermined consumer choice, stifled innovation, violated users’ privacy, and put Google in control of the flow and dissemination of online information. We intend to closely follow the facts we discover in this case and proceed as necessary.”

Paxton has pointed out in the statements that the Government and its agencies does not have an issue with a dominant market player (we don’t believe this however), but it must maintain this dominance by playing within the rules. This is where Paxton believes Google has become non-compliant with US law; it is stifling competition and the choice for consumers.

The difficulty the legal coalition will face in this investigation to start with is the reason behind Google’s market domination; it offers the best search service on the web. Some might disagree, but we believe it is the most effective and accurate internet search engine available. This will be one of the reasons behind the continued dominance, though there are of course others; these other factors will determine whether Google is abusing this position of dominance.

One area which might become of interest to the Attorney Generals is the roll of acquisitions in maintaining this leadership position. Of course, M&A is a perfectly valid means of growing a business, though should such transactions be deemed as a means for Google to kill off any competition which could potentially emerge, this would be a violation of antitrust laws.

This is where the probes will find it very difficult to fight against Google and the other giants of Silicon Valley; can anything be done against potentially anti-competitive acquisitions? In the Google case, some might suggest it shouldn’t have been allowed to acquire both Android and YouTube to supplement its PC search advertising business. This suggestion is of course made with hindsight, though there will be some who will attempt to do something about it.

Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat Senator for Massachusetts and potential opponent for President Trump in the 2020 Elections, has already promised to break-up the tech giants. FTC Chairman Joe Simons is another who has the divestment ambition, though he has stated it would have to be done sooner rather than later, as Big Tech is manoeuvring assets and operations in an attempt to make any divestments almost impossible.

What this investigation does offer is another layer of scrutiny placed on the internet giants. This investigation might well be directed at Google, but any precedent which is set could be applied to the other residents of Silicon Valley.

When you actually stand back and look at the investigations which are on-going, the US Government is creating a swiss cheese model of legal nightmares for the internet giants. The more layers which are applied, the less likely Big Tech can squeeze through the legal loopholes and come out unscathed on the other end. The likes of Google will have the finest legal minds on the payroll, but the legal assaults are coming quickly, and from all angles.

Aside from this investigation, Google has also recently confirmed it is at the centre of a Department of Justice probe and is also facing the House Judiciary Committee’s examination into big tech antitrust. And then it will have to consider the potential implications of other enquiries.

Facebook is being investigated by the FTC for its acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram, as is the House Judiciary Committee. New York Attorney General Letitia James is asking whether the social media giant has damaged the consumers lives through its operations. Finally, the House Financial Services Committee as well as the Senate Banking Committee is investigating the Facebook push into cryptocurrency.

At Amazon, the FTC is investigating how the eCommerce giant competes against and aids third-party sellers on its platform, while at Apple, the House Judiciary Committee probe is attempting to understand whether the commission it takes from developers through the App Store is anti-competitive.

Each of these investigations will create precedent which can be applied to others in the Silicon Valley fraternity. It also gives any failed attempts to limit the potential of Big Tech another opportunity. There are plenty of irons in the fire and Silicon Valley will do well to avoid a branding altogether.

With the sheer volume, breadth and depth of investigations scrutinising the business models of the internet giants, it is starting to become impossible to believe the regulatory status quo will be maintained. The sun might be setting on the Wild West Web.

To date, Silicon Valley has enjoyed what should be considered a very light-touch regulatory environment. For us, there are two reasons for this.

Firstly, regulators and legislators simply could not keep up with the progress being made by the technology industry, or perhaps did not foresee the influence these giants might be able to wield. Whether it is a shortage of bodies, skilled workers being snapped up by private industry or simply too many different segments to regulate, the progress of technology leapt ahead of the rules which were supposed to govern it. The internet giants have been profiting greatly off this regulatory and legislative void.

Secondly, you have to wonder whether regulators and legislators actually wanted to put the reigns on the digital economy and the power houses normalising it in the eyes of the consumer. These companies are driving economic growth and creating jobs. The US is at the forefront of an industry which will dominate the world for decades to come; why would the Government want to stifle the industry which is keeping the US economy at the head of the international community.

With both of these explanations, perhaps it has gotten to a point where excess is being realised. The technology industry has become too powerful and it needs to be reigned in. Some might argue that Silicon Valley has more influence than Washington, which will make some in Government feel very uneasy.

Google confirms it is in the DoJ crosshairs

The technology industry is facing regulatory and legislative assaults from all angles, and Google has confirmed it is attempting to help the Department of Justice with its own investigation.

It should perhaps be considered second-nature for Google to be dealing with some sort of investigation. It has been the subject of dozens of probes over the last few years, though there are some weighty ones on the horizon.

“We have answered many questions on these issues over many years, in the United States as well as overseas, across many aspects of our business, so this is not new for us,” said Kent Walker, SVP of Global Affairs at Google.

“The DOJ has asked us to provide information about these past investigations, and we expect state attorneys general will ask similar questions. We have always worked constructively with regulators and we will continue to do so.”

In July, the Department of Justice announced an antitrust investigation, though the subjects were not explicitly named. The probe will focus on how online platforms achieve market dominance and whether they are stifling competition and therefore innovation.

Aside from this probe, momentum is gathering to attack Silicon Valley. New York Attorney General Letitia James is looking into antitrust violations at Facebook, which could set some pretty damaging precedent. The House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee is also conducting its own investigation, and soon enough Texas might be entering the fray.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has asked the press to gather on the steps of the United States Supreme Court Building in Washington DC later on today to be briefed on yet another antitrust investigation. Details are thin here for the moment, however it is another headache for Silicon Valley to consider.

The next couple of weeks will offer much more colour to the investigations, however it is becoming increasingly obvious the technology industry is going to be very different in a few years’ time. It does appear the days of the Wild West Web are coming to a close.

Multiple US states open Facebook antitrust investigation

An investigation has commenced in the US into possible abuses of Facebook’s market dominance regarding data, advertising and consumer choice.

The leader of the investigation is New York Attorney General Letitia James, but she has got her contemporaries from Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, and the District of Columbia to muck in too. They all, apparently, are uneasy about the effect Facebook’s dominant market position has on all kinds of competition.

“Even the largest social media platform in the world must follow the law and respect consumers,” said James. “I am proud to be leading a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general in investigating whether Facebook has stifled competition and put users at risk. 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.”

Yet to be announced by James, but widely reported nonetheless, is a parallel and similar investigation by the same AGs into Google. Of particular interest in both cases seems to be the digital advertising market, which is dominated in the US by the companies in question, as you can see from the chart below from eMarketer.

emarketer us digital ad spend

Since digital now accounts for the majority of ad spending it’s legitimate to be concerned about such a large market being dominated by so few players. Having said that it’s also reasonable to note that Google and Facebook have reached this position by competing in the open market and to the victor go the spoils. But however you achieve a dominant market position, once you do different rules apply to you and there’s plenty of precedent for such companies facing significant sanctions.

30 Attorney Generals on verge of announcing Google probe – sources

Sources familiar with the matter have suggested an antitrust probe involving more than 30 State Attorney Generals could be launched as soon as next Monday.

Although the specifics of the investigation are yet to make it into the public domain, the threat is looming large for Google. Three separate sources have suggested Google is in the crosshairs, according to the Washington Post, another incremental step in the US as lawmakers look to dilute the power and influence of one of Silicon Valley’s poster boys.

Comments are difficult to come by, though lawyers are seemingly ready to down weapons and reach across the political divide to address a growing debate. Bickering politicians can usually be relied on to be lethargic and ineffective, though it seems Silicon Valley is antagonising Washington enough to force friendships in an increasingly hostile and partisan political climate.

That said, it would surprise few if the investigation is officially launched next week, as there have been various public offices stating their disapproval over the power and influence Google wields.

The crux of the issue is a simple one; should a company like Google be able to access such vast amounts of information. If data is the new oil, Silicon Valley is OPEC. Combining this potential gold mine with the already bulging bank accounts could create a worrying position.

One question which remains is how responsibly companies like Google are exerting this power. Are the internet giants fuelling campaigns of defensive acquisition, swallowing up potential competitors to prevent a dilution of market share? Are initiatives being implemented to prevent growth of these rivals and kill an idea before it can even consider scaling? These are areas which could be deemed monopolistic, an abuse of a dominant position, a big no-no in today’s world.

The monopolistic accusations are just a single element of the mix though. Conservative voices have suggested the left-leaning internet giants are demonstrating bias, offering prominence to some political commentary and hiding certain opinions.

“If big tech companies are not living up to their commitments and representations regarding being open to all political viewpoints and free of bias and restrictions on the basis of policy preference, then they should be held accountable for their false, misleading and deceptive trade practices,” said Texas First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer.

Mateer and the Texas Attorney General office believe Google has been restricting the advertisement of some Republican political events, while Facebook has been censoring pro-Trump articles and Twitter limited the visibility of Republican politicians. These are unproven claims right now, but they demonstrate the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality which is a common theme though the relationship between Silicon Valley and Washington.

For the politicians, the perceived preference of the internet giants on political matters is another reason power and influence should be diluted. An antitrust investigation, gathering 30 Attorney Generals behind the same cause, could be one way to tackle the problem.

Another area which is unclear is the extent of such a probe. Google has been named as the party of interest in this report, though it would surprise few if the likes of Amazon, Twitter or Microsoft were dragged into the fray also; Silicon Valley is increasingly becoming Enemy Number One in Washington.

FTC Chair kicks off race to tackle big tech before it’s too late

A race seems to be heating up in the US. On one side, government officials are looking to tackle the influence of big tech, and on the other, Silicon Valley is trying to make it as difficult as possible.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Chairman of the FTC Joseph Simons has stated he believes efforts from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to more intrinsically integrate the different platforms could seriously complicate his own investigation. Back in July, it was unveiled the FTC was conducting a probe to understand whether competition has been negatively impacted by the social media giant.

However, Facebook has gone on the offensive and Simons is clearly not thrilled about it.

“If they’re maintaining separate business structures and infrastructure, it’s much easier to have a divestiture in that circumstance than in where they’re completely enmeshed, and all the eggs are scrambled,” said Simons.

This is the issue which the FTC is facing; Facebook is more closely integrating the separate brands. From a commercial perspective, this will allow the social media giant to cross-pollinate the platforms, potentially increasing revenues and enhancing the data-analytics machine, though it will also make divestments much more difficult to enforce.

Looking across the big names in Silicon Valley, this is a common business practice. The commercial benefits are of course very obvious, but it could be viewed as a defensive strategy in preparation for any snooping from government agencies.

At Google, with the benefit of hindsight, some regulators and politicians might have wanted to have block the acquisitions of Android, YouTube or artificial intelligence firm DeepMind. These acquisitions have led Google to become one of the most influential companies on the planet, though it does appear regulators at the time did not have the vision to understand the long-term impact. Now the services are so deeply embedded and inter-twined it is perhaps unfeasible to consider divestments.

Amazon is another company some of these politicians would love to tackle, but how do you go about breaking-up such a complex business, where the moving parts are becoming increasingly reliant on each-other?

Going back almost two decades, this is not the first-time regulators have attempted to tackle an overly influential player. Thanks to dominance in the PC arena, Microsoft was deemed to be negatively influencing competition when it came to software and applications. Despite Microsoft being forced to settle the case with the Department of Justice in 2001, the concessions stopped far short of a company break-up.

As part of the settlement, Microsoft agreed to make it easier competitors to get their software more closely integrated with the Windows OS, by breaking the company into two separate units, one to produce the operating system, and one to produce other software components. This was a tough pill for Microsoft to swallow, but it was a favourable outcome for the internet giant.

One view on this outcome is that Microsoft managed to structure its business in such a way it became almost impossible to split-up. If the technology giants of today can learn some lessons from Microsoft, they might well be able to circumnavigate any aggression from the US government.

Although the FTC is stealing the headlines here, it is not the only party looking to tackle the influence of Silicon Valley.

The House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee that deals with antitrust has already summoned Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google to testify. This investigation is also looking at the potential negative impact these monstrously large companies are having on competition. A couple of weeks later, the Department of Justice also opened its own probe.

Of course, there are also posturing politicians who are aiming to plug for PR points by slamming Silicon Valley. This is a very popular strategy, with the likes of Virginia Senator Mark Warner and Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren taking a firm stance. President Trump has rarely been a friend of Silicon Valley either.

Another interest element to consider are the lawyers. Reports have emerged this morning to suggest as many as 20 State Attorney Generals will also be launching their own investigation. The threat of legal action could be very worrying for Silicon Valley, with a number of the lawyers already suggesting they do not like the way the digital economy is evolving, with the concentration of power one of the biggest problems.

The US has generally tolerated monopolies or an unreasonable concentration of power in economic verticals to a point, generally until infrastructure has been sorted, though the pain threshold might be getting to close. This has been seen with a break-up of Standard Oil’s monopoly, as well as splitting the Bell System, a corporation which was a monopoly in some regions for more than a century, into the Baby Bells across North America in the 1980s.

The internet giants will never publicly state they are participating in strategies which in-effect act as a hindrance to government agencies, but it must be a pleasant by-product. First and foremost, the internet giants will want to integrate different products and services for commercial reasons, operational efficiencies or increased revenues for example, however one eye will be cast on these investigations.

It does appear there is an arms race emerging. Government agencies and ambitious politicians are collecting ammunition for an assault on Silicon Valley, and the internet giants are shoring up defences to ensure a continuation of the status quo. This is a battle for power, and its one the US Government could very feasibly lose.

FTC warns of break-up of big tech

The technology industry has often been a political punching bag over the last 18-24 months, and now the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is adding to the misery.

In an interview with Bloomberg, FTC Chairman Joe Simons has suggested his agency would be prepared to break-up big tech, undoing previous acquisitions, should it prove to be the best means to prevent anti-competitive activities. This would be a monumental task, though it seems the tides of favour have turned against Silicon Valley.

This is not the first time the internet giants have faced criticism, and it won’t be the last, but what is worth noting is the industry has not endeared itself to friendly comments from political offices around the world. Recent events and scandals, as well as the exploitation of grey areas in the law, have hindered the relationship between Silicon Valley and ambitious politicians.

In this instance, the FTC is currently undertaking an investigation to understand the impact the internet giants are having on competition and the creation of new businesses. Let’s not forget, supporting the little man and small businesses is a key component of the political armoury, and with a Presidential Election around the corner, PR plugs will be popping up all over the place.

Looking at one of those plugs, Democrat candidate-hopeful Elizabeth Warren has already made this promise. Back in March, Warren launched her own Presidential ambitions with the promise to hold the internet giants accountable to the rules. Not only does this mean adding bills to the legislative chalkboard, but potentially breaking up those companies which are deemed ‘monopolistic’.

This has of course been an issue for years in Europe. The European Commission has stopped short of pushing for a break-up, though Google constantly seems to be in the antitrust spotlight for one reason or another. Whether it is default applications through Android or preferential treatment for shopping algorithms, it is under investigation. The latest investigation has seen job recruiters moaning over anti-competitive activities for job sites.

What is also worth noting is that the US has a habit of diluting the concentration of power in certain segments throughout its history. The US Government seems to be tolerant of monopolies while the industry is being normalised and infrastructure is being deployed, before opening-up the segment.

During the early 1910s, Standard Oil was being attacked as a monopoly, though this was only after it has finished establishing the rail network to efficiently transport products throughout the US. In the 1980s, the Bell System was broken-up into the regional ‘Baby Bells’ to increase competition throughout the US telco market.

The internet could be said to have reached this point also. A concentration of power might have been accepted as a necessary evil to ensure economy of scale, to accelerate the development and normalisation of the internet economy, though it might have reached the tipping point.

That said, despite the intentions of US politicians, this might be a task which is much more difficult to complete. It has been suggested Facebook has been restructuring its business and processes to make it more difficult to break-up. It also allegedly backed out of the acquisition of video-focused social network Houseparty for fears it would raise an antitrust red-flag and prompt deeper investigations.

You have to wonder whether the other internet giants are making the same efforts. For example, IBM’s Watson, its AI flagship, has been integrated throughout its entire portfolio, DeepMind has been equally entwined throughout Google, while the Amazon video business is heavily linked to the eCommerce platform. These companies could argue the removal of certain aspect would be overly damaging to the prospects of the business and also a bureaucratic nightmare to untangle.

The more deeply embedded some of these acquisitions are throughout all elements of the business, the more difficult it becomes to separate them. It creates a position where the internet giants can fight back against any new regulation, as these politicians would not want to harm the overarching global leadership position. Evening competition is one thing but sacrificing a global leadership position in the technology industry defending the consumer would be unthinkable.

This is where you have to take these claims from the FTC and ambitious politicians with a pinch-of-salt. These might be very intelligent people, but they will have other jobs aside from breaking-up big tech. The internet giants will have incredibly intelligent people who will have the sole-task of making it impossible to achieve these aims.

DoJ launches anti-competition investigation into leading online platforms

The US Department of Justice announced on Tuesday it is investigating if leading online platforms have undertaken anti-competition, anti-innovation, and other consumer harming practices.

Though the DoJ does not name the companies it will focus the investigation on, when it specifies “concerns that consumers, businesses, and entrepreneurs have expressed about search, social media, and some retail services online”, it would be fair to assume the targets are Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and when it comes to digital content distribution, Apple.

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

The DoJ is seeking “information from the public, including industry participants who have direct insight into competition in online”. If found guilty, and this may including offences other than anti-competition, according to The Wall Street Journal sources, “the Department will proceed appropriately to seek redress.”

This is the latest of a series of actions taken by the US legislature and administrative authorities to rein in the power of the online platforms. In March the House Antitrust Subcommittee launched a probe into online market competition.

“The growth of monopoly power across our economy is one of the most pressing economic and political challenges we face today. Market power in digital markets presents a whole new set of dangers,” House Representative David N. Cicilline, Chairman of the Antitrust Subcommittee said at the time.

More recently companies including Google, Facebook, Amazon have been subjected to House Judiciary Committee enquiry into their practices related to market competition, amid reports that these companies have gained shares in their key markets. Facebook is on the eve of a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission that could run as high as $5 billion following the investigation of its privacy breach.

The most common measure used by the leading online companies to fend off competition is to buy the competition out. The most high-profile cases include Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram, Google’s acquisition of Waze, Amazon’s acquisition of Twitch, and Apple’s acquisition of Shazam. In some cases, for example the acrimony between Spotify and Apple, some restrictive policy changes may be applied to limit the growth of a competition, especially if the competition relies on the platform. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, however denied the company is a monopoly in a CBS interview in June, claiming Apple is not in a dominant position in any market.

The power wielded by the online platforms has not escaped the attention of the politicians, especially the presidential candidates. President Trump has repeatedly lambasted the alleged bias against conservatives by the social media giants, while Elizabeth Warren, one of the front-runner Democrat candidates, famously called for the breakup of the big internet companies. However the applicability of such proposed breakups is debatable. The most high-profile attempt to break up a company in recent history was the one targeted at Microsoft, the decision rescinded on appeal. Even if a breakup does happen, its long-term effectively may also be questioned. The last memorable breakup of a monopoly in the last 40 years was the geographical split of AT&T’s regional operations into seven Baby Bells. Four of them were later acquired by the current AT&T.

Europe takes another chunk out of Qualcomm profits

The European Commission has announced it will once again fine Qualcomm for market abuse, with the investigation this time focusing on 3G baseband chipsets.

It seems time does not heal all wounds as this investigation focused on market abuse between 2009 and 2011, and a concept known as ‘predatory pricing’. In short, Qualcomm used its dominant market position to sell products to strategically important customers, below cost price, to effectively kill off any competition before it had a chance to gain momentum.

“Baseband chipsets are key components so mobile devices can connect to the Internet,” said Margrethe Vestager, the Commissioner in charge of competition policy. “Qualcomm sold these products at a price below cost to key customers with the intention of eliminating a competitor.

“Qualcomm’s strategic behaviour prevented competition and innovation in this market and limited the choice available to consumers in a sector with a huge demand and potential for innovative technologies. Since this is illegal under EU antitrust rules, we have today fined Qualcomm €242 million.”

Although the European Commission affords the opportunity for companies to use market advantages to seek profits, but when it becomes anti-competitive the bureaucrats draw a line. This is what has happened in this instance.

At the time, Qualcomm controlled roughly 60% market share of the UMTS baseband chipset segment, three times as great as the nearest competitor, though this position was used to kill competition before it had a chance to emerge. Using its relationships with Huawei and ZTE, Qualcomm sold products at low enough prices no-one could compete.

This is the challenge with segments which have such high-barriers to entry, key customer accounts are critically important, such are the investments which need to be made in R&D. Qualcomm effectively created a loss leader of these products to stem the critical flow of funds into any competition which could develop from the smallest glimmer of hope. In this case, the firm in question was Icera, which was eventually acquired by Nvidia.

The fine in this case represents 1.27% of Qualcomm’s turnover in 2018 and will hopefully deter companies from engaging in anticompetitive activity in the future.

For Vestager, this is another parting shot as she wraps up her tenure in the competition policy office, a position she has held since 2014.

The Commissioner has built a reputation of taking on big tech who make a habit of practising in anti-competitive activities. Qualcomm has been a frequent combatant of Vestager, though she has got plenty of experience dealing with the likes of Google and Amazon also, the latter of which is the subject of the latest probe.

Assuming the tech giants will be happy to see the back of her would be very reasonable, though it remains to be seen who will replace the feisty and combative Vestager.

DoJ antitrust chief readies for battle against big tech

There have been plenty of whispers in the back alleys of Silicon Valley of the antitrust boogeyman and now the nightmares are turning into reality.

Speaking at an industry conference in Israel, Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim outlined his views on competitiveness in the technology industry. Those who were anticipating an antitrust battle in the US can feel suitably vindicated, as Delrahim effectively confirms he has Google and Apple firmly in the crosshairs.

“The digital economy is a fact of life, but it is not all things to all people,” said Delrahim. “There has been robust public discussion about whether the broader economy, undoubtedly transformed by digital technologies, is working well for everyone.”

Although this is not necessarily shocking news, it is a nuanced confirmation of the up-coming assault against big tech.

Last week, the US took the first tentative steps towards addressing the influence of technology on today’s society. The House Antitrust Subcommittee announced the launch of a bipartisan investigation into competition in digital markets, potentially offering a threat to solid foundation of the technology giants. Diluting the dominance of big tech is going to be a very difficult task, but it does appear the groundwork is being laid.

In this speech, Delrahim is effectively outlining the Department of Justice’s plan, as well as the justification for tackling big tech.

“Where there are credible concerns that a transaction or business practice is anticompetitive, timely and effective antitrust enforcement is imperative,” said Delrahim.

“…After all, the government’s successful antitrust case against Microsoft arguably paved the way for companies like Google, Yahoo, and Apple to enter the market with their own desktop and mobile products.”

Microsoft’s dominance of the technology world in the 90s should not be underplayed and perhaps can be very accurately likened to Google’s influence today. Although the US Government was not successful in breaking-up Microsoft as an organization, it did manage to dilute its power and broaden the spread of wealth. When a company starts to dictate play in the way Microsoft did, the US Government starts to get a bit twitchy.

This is the issue which the likes of Google, Amazon and Apple are facing today. Such is the success of the business, through the creation of best-in-class products and strategic acquisitions to stutter the progress of competitors, the fortunes of the technology industry are incredibly concentrated. This is what Delrahim and his colleagues want to address.

Specifics are often lost in such conference speeches, but an interesting point raised by Delrahim focused on “network effects”. In short, an organization has such control over the supporting ecosystem competition is suffocated before it has any genuine chance to be competitive. Perhaps this is done through acquiring nascent competitors or manipulating the ecosystem.

Although there have been some hints of strategy from Delrahim, the specifics are still evading the industry. That said, it is becoming increasingly clear that the US Government wants to dilute the power and influence of big tech.

US attempts first step towards breaking up big tech

The US House Antitrust Subcommittee has formed a bipartisan investigation into competition in digital markets, potentially offering a threat to solid foundation of the technology giants.

While the technology giants have increasingly become political punching bags over the last few years, the industry has been pretty effective at dodging any material impact. Many politicians have taken aim, but few have landed a shot. This approach, taking in voices from both sides of the US political spectrum might offer more of a challenge.

“The growth of monopoly power across our economy is one of the most pressing economic and political challenges we face today,” said Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline. “Market power in digital markets presents a whole new set of dangers.

“After four decades of weak antitrust enforcement and judicial hostility to antitrust cases, it is critical that Congress step in to determine whether existing laws are adequate to tackle abusive conduct by platform gatekeepers or whether we need new legislation to respond to this challenge.”

To date, the technology giants have operated with relative regulatory freedom, though the shackles are being dragged towards Silicon Valley. This is not an unusual situation; embryonic industries are often given room to growth and prosper before being tied back with red tape when the influence starts to become notable.

For the tech space, the calls for regulation have been getting lounder month-on-month. GDPR was one of the first major pieces of legislation, while the constant inability of the industry to demonstrate its ability to self-regulate have been forcing the hand of politicians who often do not like to get involved in things they do not understand.

“Big Tech plays a huge role in our economy and our world,” said Congressman Doug Collins. “As tech has expanded its market share, more and more questions have arisen about whether the market remains competitive.

“Our bipartisan look at competition in the digital markets gives us the chance to answer these questions and, if necessary, to take action. I appreciate the partnership of Chairman Nadler, Subcommittee Chairman Cicilline and Subcommittee Ranking Member Sensenbrenner on these important issues.”

Despite negative connotations, monopolies do offer significant benefits to a country, and it seems the US has traditionally been very effective at judging when it is happy to stand-off and when to step-in.

In 1890, the Sherman Antitrust Act was passed into US law. This act banned trusts and monopolistic combinations that lessened or otherwise hampered interstate and international trade. Although it was not necessarily the most successful of Acts to start with, it soon began to swing into motion.

One of the first monopolies to be attacked by politicians was Standard Oil in 1911. At the time, Standard Oil had cornered 90% of the oil market across the country but was allowed to thrive. It was only broken up, coincidentally, once the firm had finished construction of nationwide train infrastructure, dramatically decreasing the cost of operations. At this point, the Sherman Antitrust Act was used to open up the industry.

There has been a lot more regulation passed in the intervening years since 1890, the Clayton Act was introduced in 1914 to add more clarity to the definition of when a monopoly causes more damage than good, and more industries have been carved up. From sugar and tobacco to meat packaging and, more recently, telecommunications. The trend seems to be the same.

Every time monopolies have been challenged by US politicians there seems to be a watershed moment reached. They might be a few years late with the technology industry, but the same could be said here.

The fact is monopolies offer a concentration of wealth and scale opportunities. A few might be collecting all the riches, but operational efficiencies allow for more rapid growth and expansion. It makes sense to ‘dance with the devil’ for a short period in pursuit of the greater good.

Almost every aspect of the digital economy has now been normalised in the eyes of the mass market, and those areas which haven’t are increasingly becoming standard practice (AI for example). The likes of Facebook, Google, Amazon, Netflix, Uber, AirBnB and Microsoft can largely be thanked for that, but now the mission is complete, consumers are open to a new way of spending and ecosystems have the potential to flourish. It seems the benefits of having tech monopolies has passed and the wealth needs to be spread more evenly.

This is of course not to say the tech giants will disappear, or that the House will be successful in their pursuit of increased competition, diversity and evenly dispersed profits.

What the tech giants have become very good at in recent years is lobbying and challenging legislation. One is the subtle art of influence, a shady practise often conducted over dinner or behind closed doors, the other is the heavy hammer of legal expertise, hitting back at new rules with expensive lawyers, fuelled by the profits of market dominance.

The likes of Facebook and Amazon will not take this challenge lying down. Executives make too much money, investors have too much skin in the game and egos are too great to have empires carved apart. These companies have absorbed the blood, sweat and tears of many of these executives, with countless sleepless nights directed towards the pursuit of billions. These executives are dedicated hunters, and they will not let their prey out of their sights without a bloody fight.

One example of the industry winning is Microsoft. In the 90s, Microsoft was challenged on whether it was abusing its position as essentially a non-coercive monopoly. It might have lost the case and has been the focal point of other antitrust cases since, but the red tapers were not successful in breaking up the behemoth.

Other examples of less successful ventures from the politicians focus on the utilities space. In some regions, monopolies are allowed to exist, though strict pricing regulations prevent any, in theory anyway, market abuses. This has stemmed the prospect of flourishing spreadsheets, which would be just as bad an outcome for the tech giants and investors.

Another factor to consider is that of competence. If the politicians are going to be effective in breaking up big tech, they first have to understand how it works today and what the risks of tomorrow are.

There are two problems here. Firstly, the best talent (engineering, accountancy or legal for example) are drafting into the ranks of the technology giants. And secondly, career politicians are more common than not. These are people that specialise in the celebritised-practice which politics has become, they are not leaders of industry as they were in previous generations. This gulf in competence could prove to be a major problem for the Subcommittee.

Monopolies have their place in the economy, at least for a short period of time, and this investigation from the House  Antitrust Subcommittee will aim to figure out whether this time has been reached. First, the politicians have to prove there is evidence of monopolistic abuses, or serious potential, and then comes the difficult job; squaring up to the technology giants, industry experts and the mountains of cash fuelling them.