FTC Head Open to Breaking Up Big Tech Companies
In an interview with Bloomberg posted this week, Federal Trade Commission Chairman Joe Simmons acknowledged that he’s more than willing to break up major tech companies by undoing past mergers and acquisitions if its found that those business moves are harming competition throughout the industry. Chairman Simons, who is in the midst of a broad review of the tech sector, did say that breaking up a company can be a major challenge, but it could be the right course of action to restore a normal level of fair competition to an industry that is certainly very top heavy.
Data from a July 2018 report in Visual Capitalist shows that Google leads the way in terms of the number of acquisitions made by a tech company since 1991 with 214. Behind them you’ll find Cisco (193), Microsoft (189), IBM (181), HP (117), and Apple (89).
Number of acquisitions by tech companies, through July 2018. | Credit: Visual Capitalist
However, the tech company that continues to receive the bulk of coverage related to their acquisitions and the balance of power and influence in the tech space is Facebook—and perhaps rightfully so. According to the Visual Capitalist report, Facebook had gobbled up 65 companies as of last year—another more recent report suggests the company has made 79 acquisitions to date. If we take the latter figure, That equates to roughly 5.6 companies every year since the social network was launched by Mark Zuckerberg from a dorm room at Harvard in 2004. However, a quick check on the rundown of Facebook acquisitions shows that the company only made three acquisitions prior to 2010. So, you’re really looking at 76 acquisitions made by Facebook in just the last eight and a half years.
Included in that list of companies are a number of major, formerly-independent social networks and messaging platforms that have since become Facebook properties—names like Instagram, WhatsApp, Friendster, and Oculus VR.
Because of the sheer size and power of a Facebook, a lot of noise has been made amongst consumers and in Congress about possible antitrust violations, hence the Justice Department’s antitrust division opening its own investigation a few weeks ago into whether the biggest online platforms are harming competition. In a statement, DOJ not-so-coyly hinted at who they’d be targeting with the probe, saying they’d look into “search, social media, and some retail services online.” So, Google, Facebook, and Amazon, at the very least.
The DOJ’s investigation is separate from what Simons and the FTC are looking into, but the two are certainly likely to see some overlap, which Simons alluded to in his Bloomberg interview. “It’s possible for sure that we could be investigating the same company at the same time but just for different conduct,” he said. The FTC could, for example, look into Amazon’s buying a certain grocery chain because of their expertise in the supermarket sector, while DOJ would likely look into their purchase of a music-streaming site, Simons said.
So, while nothing is ever guaranteed to happen as a result of these investigations, it’ll be interesting to follow which companies get the brunt of the scrutiny and what course of action—if any—is recommended by the DOJ and/or FTC.