Facebook, Google in crosshairs of new FTC competition task force

In a sign of the deepening scrutiny faced by Big Tech companies like Facebook and Google, the Federal Trade Commission has launched a new heavily staffed task force to monitor competition and consider possible antitrust violations in U.S. technology markets.

The task force, which will have the power to review upcoming and already consummated mergers in the industry, is set to be staffed by at least 17 attorneys — most of them with expertise in markets for online advertising, social networking, mobile operating systems and apps and platform businesses.

"The role of technology in the economy and in our lives grows more important every day," said FTC Chairman Joe Simons in a statement on Tuesday. "As I've noted in the past, it makes sense for us to closely examine technology markets to ensure consumers benefit from free and fair competition."

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The new task force is another signal of the growing weariness among lawmakers and everyday users of the massive power of technology companies and whether they've wielded that power to crush competitors, violate users' privacy or otherwise harm consumers.

A coalition of consumer advocacy groups last week urged the FTC to probe whether Facebook violated the rights of children with unfair and deceptive business practices. And earlier this month, a major U.K. report on fake news slammed Facebook and its leadership as "digital gangsters."

"Technology markets, which are rapidly evolving and touch so many other sectors of the economy, raise distinct challenges for antitrust enforcement," Bureau Director Bruce Hoffman said in a statement. "By centralizing our expertise and attention, the new task force will be able to focus on these markets exclusively — ensuring they are operating pursuant to antitrust laws, and taking action where they are not."

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook, is seen above.

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook, is seen above. (Getty Images)

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The FTC, which has been criticized in the past for not doing enough to rein in Big Tech, reportedly weighed an attempt to block Facebook's purchase of Instagram more than six years ago.

Back then, however, Instagram did not have any revenue — and since antitrust laws tend to equate market share with revenue, those concerned FTC commissioners didn't succeed in blocking the merger.

According to The New York Post, the FTC had a document from a high-ranking Facebook executive saying that the only reason the social network was buying Instagram was to eliminate a potential competitor. "It was a spectacular document," one source told The New York Post.

The FTC ultimately approved Facebook's purchase of Instagram, which now itself has one billion monthly active users and was described by Axios as an "engagement powerhouse" for the tech giant.

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However, the new task force could reportedly force Facebook or Google to unwind mergers if it finds "competitive harm."

Last week, the Electronic Privacy Information Center called on the FTC to force Google to divest its Nest business after a series of privacy flaps involving microphones in the devices that consumers were not aware of. Earlier this year, France fined Google $57 million for violating the EU's General Data Protection Regulation. The search giant was fined $5 billion in July 2018 by the EU for antitrust behavior related to its Android operating system.

Task force members will also coordinate with their counterparts in the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection who work on these issues.

The FTC is considering fines of up to $5 billion for Facebook's privacy violations, including the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, according to The Wall Street Journal.

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Facebook declined to comment when reached by Fox News. Google did not respond to a request for comment.