Justice Department Opens Antitrust Review of Big Tech Companies

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The Justice Department’s review may not lead to full-blown investigations of the companies. But the timing of the announcement ratchets up pressure on the tech giants. Across Washington in recent weeks, lawmakers and regulators have united to raise questions about Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple.

This month, the F.T.C. voted to fine Facebook about $5 billion for mishandling users’ personal information, by far the agency’s largest fine against a tech company. An official announcement of a settlement is expected as soon as Wednesday.

Last week, Facebook faced lawmakers over two days of grilling for a new cryptocurrency initiative called Libra. Google was at the center of a Senate subcommittee hearing about censorship in search. And at a separate House hearing, with witnesses from Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple, Representative David Cicilline, a Democrat of Rhode Island who leads a subcommittee on antitrust law, said that the government stance for too long was to celebrate the new tech economy rather than scrutinize its corporate leaders.

“Congress and antitrust enforcers allowed these firms to regulate themselves with little oversight,” Mr. Cicilline said. “As a result, the internet has become increasingly concentrated, less open and growingly hostile to innovation and entrepreneurship.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Cicilline sent letters to three of the companies at last week’s hearing — Google, Facebook and Amazon. He said he was seeking answers to questions that the witnesses were asked but did not directly answer. Mr. Cicilline characterized those earlier replies as “evasive, incomplete or misleading.”

The Justice Department has stepped up its consideration of tech companies since May, said one person with knowledge of the discussions. Around then, the Justice Department and the F.T.C. split up potential antitrust investigations into Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple, this person said.

The review announced on Tuesday is a separate and next step beyond those moves with the F.T.C., this person added. In recent weeks, antitrust and tech policy experts have more frequently visited the Justice Department as it sought to understand harms the tech companies may have created. It has not yet settled on a theory of harm, this person said. In announcing its review, the Justice Department said it would look into whether the internet companies were “harming consumers.”

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