If you’re an up-and-coming prosecutor or politician, you better have a plan to go after big tech. All the cool kids seem to have one.
This week, we saw attorneys general offices scrambling to formally launch antitrust investigations. Plans by a group led by the Texas attorney general’s office to announce an investigation into Google seemed like the official kickoff of state-level tech scrutiny—until New York’s attorney general stole the spotlight by announcing a separate investigation into Facebook Inc.
That’s on top of separate U.S. Justice Department inquiries. The Federal Trade Commission recently fined Facebook $5 billion and Google $170 million. The heads of antitrust efforts at both federal regulators are testifying in front of Congress on Sept 17. It’s hard to keep track of everyone piling on.
There are certainly plenty of ways for politicians and prosecutors to pursue Alphabet Inc., Amazon.com Inc., Apple Inc. and Facebook. Beating up on the tech industry is the rare bipartisan issue in a hyper-partisan age, and it is an open question of who will become the face of the tech crackdown. This gives a wide range of players the incentive to plant their flags. Senator Josh Hawley, who, to his credit, was early to the tech-as-political-piñata party, put out a statement Friday reminding everyone that he was “proud to launch the first antitrust and privacy investigation of Big Tech by an attorney general two years ago.” (In fact, his investigation asked many of the same questions Texas’s attorney general began looking into in 2011.)
As we saw with Microsoft in the 1990s, these inquiries alone can have a meaningful impact. It can put tech companies on the defensive and make them careful not to overstep and wary about making acquisitions that could get blocked by regulators. That said, we live in an era when tech executives have remained fairly brazen. Facebook, in particular, hasn’t been afraid to acquire rivals and to push the envelope. Even as it is under the microscope, the company is launching a cryptocurrency and starting to get into online dating. The $5 billion fine from the Federal Trade Commission barely registered.
One problem with multiple efforts trying to turn anti-tech sentiment into legal cases, rather than a single principled critique, is that things can get a little muddled. The attorneys general investigations into Facebook covers both privacy and antitrust. Those are pretty different issues and could allow, for example, Facebook to compromise on privacy to avoid giving much ground on antitrust.
On the other hand, a benefit of having so many different government agencies focused on big tech is that they’re working in parallel. Each one can hone in on their own complaint without worrying about another issue slipping through the cracks. They all want a career-defining case. It seems like there are plenty of them to go around.