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US: House Hearing signals fireworks on Big Tech antitrust issues

 |  September 9, 2019

For Big Tech, expect fireworks for fall, or a September to remember.

This Thursday, September 12, the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee will hold a hearing on issues top of mind in the digital realm, touching on how data and privacy affect competition online, and specifically, for online marketplaces.

The witness list is varied and international in scope. Before the day is through, and as detailed by Bloomberg, the panel will have heard from: Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Chairman Rod Sims; former Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Jason Furman, who now is a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School; Roslyn Layton, visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Commissioner Rohit Chopra.

This is the third hearing in a series focused on larger tech firms and economic power that has been held by Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who serves as subcommittee chairman.

Thus far, the other hearings and testimony have focused on the impact that marquee names, such as Google and Facebook, have had on the media industry.

The second hearing focused on innovation and competitive impact on the tech space, and panelists included executives from Apple, Amazon, and Google.

This time around, and at least thus far, the Thursday hearing does not feature appearances from company executives. But the hearings, ongoing as they are, take on new significance against the backdrop where regulatory scrutiny of tech firms — especially larger ones — is on an upswing.

In recent headlines, the Justice Department has said that it is looking into Google’s digital advertising and search activities and examining whether the company may have breached antitrust laws. As has been reported, more than 30 state attorneys general are looking at the company through a bipartisan effort that is being spearheaded by Texas, and the official probe could be announced as early as Monday, September 9.

It’s too early to tell, but there is at least some speculation that the company could be mandated to change the way it categorizes and presents search results, and billions of dollars in fines may be in the offing, as well as a demand from regulators that the company break itself up.

As for Facebook, antitrust probes also are afoot, as reported late last week in The Wall Street Journal, where New York Attorney General Letitia James confirmed to that financial publication that her office is organizing what is being billed as a “bipartisan, multistate antitrust probe” into the possibility of whether Facebook “has stifled competition and put users at risk,” as she said in a statement.

“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,” she said.

At this writing (Sunday, Sept. 8), the AGs focused on Facebook include Colorado, Florida, Nebraska, North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Iowa, and the District of Columbia.

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