SALT LAKE CITY — Rumblings of antitrust investigations potentially aimed at Google, Amazon, Facebook and/or Apple got a little louder this week with activity at both the state and federal levels — and participation by Utah elected officials.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and 42 other state attorneys general signed a 25-page document that was submitted to the Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday and laid the groundwork for a gathering on Wednesday in Omaha, Nebraska.
There, attorneys general joined FTC officials for conversations focused on how such big tech platform businesses block out competitors by sheer size and scope, why the intersection of personal data privacy and competition requires scrutiny, and how current, outdated antitrust regulations fall short of being an effective tool.
Some reports ahead of the meeting indicated it could be the first steps in coordinated, state-level investigations of big tech.
But Reyes' deputy and antitrust specialist David Sonnenreich said the analysis and discussions did not target any particular company and were intended to be a "call for recalibrating the way we look at antitrust and big tech."
He also noted that dated antitrust rules fail to address issues that have come to the fore with the advent of big tech platforms.
"(One) problem that we’ve identified is that very specialized sets of go-to tools for … brick-and-mortar businesses don’t work as well in the digital world," Sonnenreich said. "Tech just operates differently. … It's amorphous or chameleon-like."
Sonnenreich also noted the way some tech platforms function reflects that the real commodity, for the companies, is the data that's gathered about the individual users.
"Most of these services are either free or nominally priced in terms of cash," Sonnenreich said. "It makes it hard for consumers to evaluate product A versus product B, when the cost is zero.
"We all value our privacy … but have to recognize that privacy is, in many ways, compromised by the digital world in which we live."
While state agencies ponder individual or collective next steps, federal law and rules enforcers are laying the groundwork for moving antitrust actions forward.
Under an agreement recently struck between the U.S. Department of Justice and the FTC, the agencies split potential investigative duties aimed at big tech platforms. Per the agreement, the DOJ now has authority over any potential antitrust investigation into Google parent Alphabet Inc. and Apple, while the FTC has oversight of Facebook and Amazon.
Close behind that bifurcation, Republican Utah Sen. Mike Lee linked arms with Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar on Wednesday in announcing a July hearing at which a Senate subcommittee will have the opportunity to learn more about any pending, or active federal investigative actions targeting big tech on antitrust issues.
Lee noted concerns that splitting responsibilities between two agencies may not be the most efficient path forward.
“As the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division are apparently poised to begin investigations into possible antitrust violations by the tech industry, I am interested to learn more about the conduct the agencies will examine and the resources they will require to carry out this mission,” Lee said in a statement.
“I also intend to explore how and why the agencies are splitting the review of these tech firms between the two agencies.
"Given the similarity in competition issues involved, divvying up these investigations is sure to waste resources, split valuable expertise across the agencies, and likely result in divergent antitrust enforcement,” Lee said.
Conn Carroll, Lee's spokesman, said his boss also stands behind state-level efforts to probe potential antitrust issues as they relate to big tech.
“Sen. Lee believes state (attorneys general) should investigate all antitrust concerns but they should only prosecute meritorious cases," Carroll said.
Klobuchar underscored that her antitrust concerns go beyond big tech platforms.
“In the wake of multiple reports that the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission may finally be initiating antitrust investigations into the largest tech firms, it's critical that we and the American people have a good sense of what the agencies are actually doing to protect competition in this important part of our economy,” Klobuchar said.
“But it’s not just about the tech industry. Protecting competition is vital to the future of every sector in our economy in every state across our country. The state lawsuit challenging the merger of two of the four nationwide cellphone carriers shows that.
"We need antitrust enforcement that meets the demands of the 21st century economy and enforcement agencies that have the resources and the will to undertake aggressive enforcement whenever and wherever competition is under threat. I look forward to discussing these matters with agency leadership on July 23,” she said.
Jason Oxman, president and CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council, a tech advocacy group, responded Wednesday urging policymakers to "avoid harmful unintended consequences" as they consider antitrust questions.
“Consumers have access to numerous tools to improve their lives, work, and society because of technology. The entrepreneurs that make up the tech industry are constantly innovating to promote the well-being of their customers and maintain the ability to create the technologies that individuals, businesses, and governments demand.
"As policymakers and government officials explore the current state of competition in U.S. markets, it is critical that they recognize that antitrust law protects competition, not competitors, and avoid harmful unintended consequences, especially those that could hurt the American economy, stifle American companies’ ability to innovate, and cede U.S. technological leadership.”
The Information Technology Industry Council counts Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google among its member companies.