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June 4, 2019 2:15 PM, EDT

Congress Opens Bipartisan Probe of Competition in Tech Industry

Amazon Alex Kraus/Bloomberg News

The House Judiciary Committee is joining the rush to investigate big technology companies, with a focus on whether increased concentration in the industry is crowding out competition and hurting consumers.

Congress’ investigation will address three issues, according to a committee statement released June 3. The hearings, led by the Antitrust Subcommittee, will focus on competition in digital markets, anti-competitive conduct of “dominant firms,” and whether current laws and enforcement policies are adequate.

“There is growing evidence that a handful of gatekeepers have come to capture control over key arteries of online commerce, content, and communications,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the Democratic chairman of the committee, said in a statement. “Given the growing tide of concentration and consolidation across our economy, it is vital that we investigate the current state of competition in digital markets and the health of the antitrust laws.”

The move comes as the U.S. government sets the stage for formal inquiries and escalated pressure on the companies amid increasing criticism that their practices are harming competition in digital markets.

After years of a light regulatory touch for the industry, enforcers are on the verge of opening broad investigations that could yield significant changes to how the companies do business.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York (Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg News)

In addition to the congressional hearings announced June 3, the Federal Trade Commission will take responsibility for antitrust probes of Facebook and Amazon, while the Justice Department is set to open an investigation of Alphabet Inc.’s Google, according to people familiar with the matter. The Justice Department also will oversee scrutiny of Apple Inc., Reuters reported.

Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, threw his support behind the probe. He said that with the “huge role” that technology plays in the economy and modern world, there are questions that have arisen about “whether the market remains competitive.”

“Our bipartisan look at competition in the digital markets gives us the chance to answer these questions,” Collins said. “And, if necessary, to take action.”

David Cicilline, the Rhode Island Democrat who chairs the Antitrust Subcommittee, previously called for the Federal Trade Commission to add a competition probe to its privacy investigation of Facebook Inc., and his panel has held hearings on the proposed merger of Sprint Corp. and T-Mobile US Inc.

“Frankly, I don’t have a lot of confidence that this administration has been particularly aggressive in their antitrust enforcement,” he said June 4 during an interview on CNN. “In fact, they often have come out on the side of monopolists and big mergers.”

Speaking with reporters June 3, Cicilline said the committee will conduct a “very serious investigation,” consisting of document requests, depositions and witness interviews. He said it’s “pretty easy to see the problem” in the tech industry, and the inquiry will bring in the experts who can discuss some possible answers.

“There’s been tremendous concentration in these digital marketplaces that are resulting in anti-competitive behavior, serious breaches of privacy, consumers not having control of their own data,” Cicilline said. “This is the first time there’s been an investigation of this magnitude in decades and frankly, it’s long overdue.”