The Sherman march broadens: FTC gearing up for anti-trust fight with Facebook?

Suuuuurrrre seems to be a lot of activity on the anti-trust front to write it off as just housekeeping purposes. First the Department of Justice announced that it would have the lead on any anti-trust effort against Google. Later this morning, we found out that the FTC got the Silicon Valley player to be named later:

The Federal Trade Commission will lead any antitrust investigation into Facebook Inc. under an arrangement that gives the Justice Department chief oversight of Alphabet Inc.’s Google, as the U.S. government gears up for scrutiny of the country’s major tech companies over competition concerns.

The FTC secured the rights to begin a potential investigation of Facebook and whether it has engaged in unlawful monopolistic practices as part of an agreement that allowed the Justice Department to take the reins in a Google probe, according to people familiar with the matter. The FTC and Justice Department share authority to enforce U.S. antitrust law and at times must work out turf arrangements regarding which agency will handle what issues.

FTC already has spent more than a year investigating Facebook on privacy issues related to how it handles users’ data. That probe, however, doesn’t focus on antitrust questions on whether Facebook is stifling competition in the digital realm. The fact that the commission formally secured jurisdiction on those issues suggests it is considering even more rigorous scrutiny of the social media giant.

As the New York Times notes in its grudging coverage of the WSJ scoop (which they fail to mention), this doesn’t necessarily mean either company needs to man the ramparts. It might still be a good idea, though:

The decision does not mean the agency has opened an official investigation. But the move is significant because it illustrates the government’s increased focus on the world’s biggest tech giants and the desire to increase oversight of how the companies may be harming competition and consumers.

In other words, this could be merely a pro forma discussion, a what-if scenario now committed to specific jurisdictions. If the occasion arises for any investigation into either company, the DoJ and FTC now know who makes that call and who doesn’t. Both agencies would have to participate, but this agreement keeps the lines of authority clear — just in case.

Investors didn’t see these moves as theoretical or mere housekeeping today. Facebook and Amazon each dropped forty billion dollars in valuation, and Google lost more than that:

Facebook shares tumbled more than 8% Monday following a Wall Street Journal report that said the FTC will be able to examine the effect of Facebook’s practices on digital competition.

Facebook’s drop shaved more than $40 billion from its market cap, bringing it to about $463 billion. Facebook is already under investigation by the FTC over its handling of user data and has said it is expecting a fine of up to $5 billion.

Shares of other tech giants took a hit over similar concerns. Amazon’s stock was down more than 4% Monday following a Washington Post report that the top U.S. antitrust enforcement agencies have a new agreement over tech oversight. The drop shaved about $41 billion from its market cap, bringing it to $833 billion.

And shares of Google parent company Alphabet were down more than 6% after the Journal reported Friday that the Justice Department is readying an antitrust investigation. The stock lost about $55 billion from its market cap, bringing it to around $714 billion.

How likely would a Sherman Act fight be? The political aspects of an anti-trust crusade against Big Tech can’t be dismissed. Donald Trump has repeatedly railed against the speech-squelching actions of Facebook and Google in order to rally his conservative base. Amazon is owned by Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post and is another target of Trump’s ire. It seems very doubtful that aggressive anti-trust actions against any of the three would displease the man in the Oval Office.

That, however, doesn’t mean that anti-trust actions are not warranted. The FTC has been too supine to properly enforce the Sherman Act for several administrations now, allowing nearly unchecked consolidation in several industries, not just Big Tech. Among the competitive insults in the latter, however, are Facebook’s acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram, Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods, and Google’s grab of YouTube. While Chris Hughes’ arguments for statutory speech codes are just this side of insane, his call to unwind those Facebook acquisitions and to enforce anti-trust laws is correct.

This problem goes far beyond the tech sector, however. We have allowed economic power to aggregate into fewer and fewer hands, which has also concentrated vastly increased political power into those same hands and incentivized big-government, rent-seeking legislation and regulation. If we want increased competition and less disparity between workers and executives, we need to roll back the consolidation of the last 30 years. We cannot have small government and Big Business at the same time.