Big Tech faces a new set of foes: Nearly all 50 US states

Matt O’Brien

AP – Big tech companies have long rebuffed attempts by the United States (US) federal government to scrutinise or scale back their market power. Now they face a scrappy new coalition as well: prosecutors from nearly all 50 states.

In a rare show of bipartisan force, attorneys general from 48 states along with Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia are investigating whether Google’s huge online search and advertising business is engaging in monopolistic behaviour. The Texas-led antitrust investigation of Google, announced on Monday, follows a separate multi-state investigation of Facebook’s market dominance that was revealed last Friday.

The state moves follow similar sweeping antitrust tech investigations launched by the Federal Trade Commission and the Trump administration’s Department of Justice; the Democrat-led House Judiciary Committee is conducting a similar probe. But should federal officials tire of their work, the state-led efforts could keep them on their toes.

States have worked closely together on other matters, such as the fight to curb opioid abuse. But the sheer number participating in this kind of antitrust effort is unprecedented and gives it more weight, said Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, a Republican.

“It’s just an accumulation of public frustration, whether it’s from consumers, other players in the market, regulators, lawmakers,” Reyes said in an interview on Monday.

Fiona Scott Morton, a Yale economics professor and former antitrust official at the Justice Department under the Obama administration, said it’s important that states are taking the lead because the Trump administration is “not really enforcing antitrust law except against companies the president is upset with”.

She noted the Trump administration’s unsuccessful push to use antitrust law to block AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner, which owns CNN, a frequent target of Trump’s criticism; and last Friday’s announcement that federal antitrust enforcers would investigate automakers that worked with California on tougher emissions limits.

“That’s not what consumers want,” she said. “Consumers want to be protected from anticompetitive conduct.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine and Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington. A bipartisan coalition of 48 states along with Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia said it is investigating whether Google’s search and advertising business is engaged in monopolistic behaviour. PHOTO: AP