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.