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.