Facebook clears one hurdle as others spring up for Google, Amazon and big tech

Calder McHugh
Associate Editor

Pressures are growing on the biggest tech companies in the world — with the incoming fire emanating from both sides of the political aisle in the United States.

On Wednesday, Facebook (FB) announced that they would pay a $5 billion settlement to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for compromising users’ data, the largest such fine in American history. The social networking site also disclosed that it faces a brewing antitrust inquiry from the Department of Justice (DoJ).

They’re not the only ones. Alphabet, the parent company of Google (GOOGGOOGL), and Amazon (AMZN) are also facing antitrust concerns both domestically and internationally. Google was recently slapped with a $5 billion fine by the European Union, while Amazon also coming under scrutiny from the EU.

Here’s where things stand with the three giants — which comprise the bulk of the high-flying tech bellwether “FAANG” stocks.

Facebook not out of the woods

While Facebook’s $5 billion settlement is a record fine from the FTC, it has also been lambasted by critics as too weak, especially because the money is a drop in the bucket for a company that pulls in $56 billion annually in revenue.

The vote broke along party lines, with the two Democratic FTC appointees voting against the deal as the three GOP members did. Yet in Congress, both sides of the aisle have begun to call for stricter enforcement of big tech — as has the Trump administration.

It’s part of what analysts think is an accurate temperature reading on the power big technology companies wield in everyday life, and public discourse.

“A majority of Americans support greater scrutiny of the tech giants, and that’s being reflected in the bipartisan backlash,” said Clara Hendrickson, a research analyst at the Brookings Institute.

According to experts, the FTC itself is using antitrust regulations that were passed in 1914 to direct much of its decision-making in the tech sector — which is now light years away from when the statutes were first envisioned.

“The settlement is constrained by the FTC’s authority in this area,” noted John Verdi, vice president of policy at the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF), an independent tech think-tank.

For the moment, investors appear less concerned. The FTC probe, which came out of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, is no longer hanging over Facebook’s head.

And on Wednesday Facebook posted strong Q2 earnings, beating expectations and stoking bullishness on Wall Street.

“We believe Facebook retains excellent opportunities to drive growth in the stories formats across Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook, from new ad formats, and from the broader rollout of transactional tools,” noted KeyBanc analysts in a research note this week.

Still, other factors suggest any sigh of relief could be premature, as political pressures mount on the company during a heated election cycle. Some 2020 contenders have floated the idea of breaking up the company.

“Facebook potentially is the most vulnerable [to be broken up],” said Brookings’ Hendrickson.

The platform “has been the greatest target of the public backlash against big tech because of its failure to adequately monitor disinformation and harmful content on its platform,” she said. Additionally, “there’s a growing movement now to reintroduce political concerns back into antitrust enforcement, largely led by the folks at the Open Markets Institute.”

Google feels the heat

Since 2010, Google has mostly faced antitrust probes in Europe, with the EU launching three separate investigations into the tech giant.

This week, though, the DoJ began an antitrust review into Google, Facebook, and Amazon, with the possibility for more tech companies to join that list as well.

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 23: U.S. Attorney General William Barr waits to speak at the International Conference on Cyber Security at Fordham University School of Law on July 23, 2019 in New York City. In his remarks, Barr stated that increased encryption of data on phones and encrypted messaging apps puts American security at risk. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

What looks like a nonpartisan concern about the formation of monopolies, though, might not be so simple. Some observers fear the DoJ could be abusing its authority as part of a campaign of retribution spurred on by President Donald Trump. The president has repeatedly accused all of the tech giants of political bias.

Others, however, think the answer might lie with the FTC. “We think it’s high time for Congress to give the FTC more authority,” FPF’s Verdi said.

‘Fear of intervening’

Amazon, while also wrapped up in the DOJ probe, has some specific, retail-based concerns. The EU has begun a formal antitrust investigation into whether Amazon is using the sales data in its Marketplace function to gain an unfair competitive advantage, according to a report in The Verge.

The company recently amended its Marketplace terms based on a German antitrust investigation, but has also directed users towards its own products, hampering competition.

“[There is a] general fear of intervening in one of the most dynamic sectors of the American economy,” said Hendrickson. “But It’s important to note the ways in which the tech giants have undermined their competitors to entrench their position.”

Calder McHugh is an Associate Editor at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @Calder_McHugh.

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