The creation of the task force signals FTC Chairman Joe Simons’s desire to bring more scrutiny to tech giants in the U.S. following aggressive enforcement by European antitrust officials.
U.S. antitrust enforcers are zeroing in on technology giants following years of criticism that they haven’t done enough to rein in dominant internet companies like Google and Facebook.
The Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday said it’s creating a task force of 17 staff lawyers to investigate potentially anticompetitive conduct by technology companies as well as completed mergers in the industry that could be unwound if they turn out to be harmful to consumers.
“This industry continues to grow in importance and complexity, and it poses challenges for antitrust enforcement,” Bruce Hoffman, the head of the competition bureau, told reporters on a conference call.
The creation of the task force signals FTC Chairman Joe Simons’s desire to bring more scrutiny to tech giants in the U.S. following aggressive enforcement by European antitrust officials against Google and Facebook.
A chorus of lawmakers, lawyers, economists and policy advocates have criticized the U.S. for its mostly hands-off approach to these companies.
The FTC, under a previous chairman in 2013, closed a 20-month antitrust investigation into whether Google unfairly skewed its search results.
The decision not to take enforcement action against the company was a blow to rivals that claimed the company’s dominance in internet search was harming competition.
The announcement of the task force was ridiculed as a “joke” by Matt Stoller, a fellow at Open Markets Institute in Washington, which advocates for aggressive antitrust enforcement.
“They just don’t want to do anything, and they continue to put out excuse after excuse after excuse,” Stoller said about the agency. “There’s a crisis of legitimacy at the FTC.”
The FTC’s Hoffman said the agency would consider all options — including a breakup or spin-off — if a merger turned out to be anticompetitive after it closed.
Although Hoffman declined to comment on specific companies or investigations, Facebook’s 2012 acquisition of Instagram is an example of a merger that critics argue never should have been approved.
“It would be useful to consider transactions that have occurred in the digital space in the past to determine whether any of those might be the subject for an investigation,” Hoffman said.