Big Tech breathed a sigh of relief in late June when a federal judge dismissed antitrust complaints that had been filed against Facebook by the Federal Trade Commission and a coalition of state attorneys general.
That respite is proving short-lived. Although some of its enforcement powers were curtailed by the Supreme Court earlier this year, the FTC under its new chair Lina Khan is mapping out an aggressive approach. The commission, for example, recently voted to make greater use of techniques such as subpoenas to compel companies to provide evidence. It also voted to prioritize investigations into technology platforms and health businesses, two areas in which large corporations have too much power.
At the same time, the dismissal of the Facebook actions has given more impetus to moves in Congress to modernize and strengthen federal antitrust laws, most of which are now well over a century old. Bills are pending that would address Big Tech practices such as buying up smaller competitors and giving preference to their own services on the platforms they control.
A third front is at the state level, where attorneys general have shown no sign of being deterred by the Facebook setback. A group of 37 AGs just filed an antitrust suit against Google, alleging that it effectively forces users of Android mobile devices to purchase apps through its Play Store and collects extravagant commissions in the process.
This is just the latest in a series of antitrust actions filed against Google by the states and the U.S. Justice Department. The state actions are of particular interest because they involve AGs from across the political spectrum. Those bringing the new Google suit come not only from unsurprising states such as New York and California but also the likes of Florida, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. In fact, the lead states include Utah and Tennessee.
At a time when partisan gridlock dooms many policy initiatives in Washington, it is encouraging to see states of very different political stripes find common ground in addressing corporate abuses.
This is not an entirely new phenomenon. As my colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First pointed out in a 2019 report, state AGs have banded together hundreds of times to bring multistate actions against a variety of abuses. In Violation Tracker, we document more than 600 successful cases of this type, which have resulted in penalties of over $112 billion.
These include more than 100 cases involving anti-competitive practices. Yet many of these concerned outright price-fixing, which is a serious offense but one that is often not relevant to tech companies that abuse their power in other ways.
Addressing monopoly control and other abuses related to concentration of power is supposed to be the purview of federal regulators, whose enforcement approaches have failed to keep up with changes in the economy.
We can still hope the FTC and the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division will reinvigorate themselves, but for now it is good to see the states step in to address corporate concentration.