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US sues Facebook over its WhatsApp, Instagram acquisition; alleges it crushed smaller rivals

WASHINGTON: The U.S. government and 48 states and districts sued Facebook Wednesday, accusing it of abusing its market power in social networking to crush smaller competitors and seeking remedies that could include a forced spinoff of the social network’s Instagram and WhatsApp messaging services.

The landmark antitrust lawsuits, announced by the Federal Trade Commission and New York Attorney General Letitia James, mark the second major government offensive this year against seemingly untouchable tech behemoths. The Justice Department sued Google in October for abusing its dominance in online search and advertising – the government’s most significant attempt to buttress competition since its historic case against Microsoft two decades ago. Amazon and Apple also have been under investigation in Congress and by federal authorities for alleged anticompetitive conduct.

James noted at a press conference that “it’s really critically important that we block this predatory acquisition of companies and that we restore confidence to the market.”

The FTC said Facebook has engaged in “a systematic strategy” to eliminate its competition, including by purchasing smaller up-and-coming rivals like Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014. James echoed that in her press conference, saying Facebook “used its monopoly power to crush smaller rivals and snuff out competition, all at the expense of everyday users.”

The FTC fined Facebook $5 billion in 2019 for privacy violations and instituted new oversight and restrictions on its business. The fine was the largest the agency has ever levied on a tech company, although it had no visible impact on Facebook’s business.

Facebook called the government actions “revisionist history” that punishes successful businesses and noted that the FTC cleared the Instagram and WhatsApp acquisitions years ago. “The government now wants a do-over, sending a chilling warning to American business that no sale is ever final,” Facebook general counsel Jennifer Newstead said in a statement that echoed the company’s response to a recent congressional antitrust probe.

Facebook is the world’s biggest social network with 2.7 billion users and a company with a market value of nearly $800 billion whose CEO Mark Zuckerberg is the world’s fifth-richest inpidual and the most public face of Big Tech swagger.

James alleged Facebook had a practice of opening its site to third-party app developers, then abruptly cutting off developers that it saw as a threat. The lawsuit – which includes 46 states, Guam and the District of Columbia – accuses Facebook of anti-competitive conduct and using its market dominance to harvest consumer data and reap a fortune in advertising revenues.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, who was on the executive committee of attorneys general conducting the investigation, said the litigation has the potential to alter the communications landscape the way the breakup of AT&T‘s local phone service monopoly in the early 1980s did.

“Our hope is to restructure the social networking marketplace in the United States, and right now there’s one player,” Stein told reporters. James said the coalition worked collaboratively with the FTC but noted the attorneys general conducted their investigation separately.

Antitrust expert Rebecca Allensworth, a law professor at Vanderbilt University, said it is “hard to win any antitrust lawsuit and this one is not any different.” But as far as antitrust cases go, she added, the government has a strong one.

The Justice Department’s suit against Google, announced just two weeks before Election Day, brought accusations of political motivation from some quarters. It was filed by a cabinet agency headed by an attorney general seen as a close ally of President Donald Trump, who has often publicly criticized Google.

The FTC, by contrast, is an independent regulatory agency whose five commissioners currently include three Republicans and two Democrats.

President-elect Joe Biden has said the breakup of Big Tech giants should be seriously considered. He has singled out Facebook’s Zuckerberg for scorn, calling him “a real problem.”

Instagram and WhatsApp are among some 70 companies that Facebook has acquired over the past 15 years. But they are the ones most frequently held up by Facebook critics as properties that should be split off.

Facebook paid $1 billion for Instagram, bolstering the social network’s business a month before its stock went public. At the time, the photo-sharing app had about 30 million users and wasn’t producing any revenue. A few years later, Facebook acquired WhatsApp, an encrypted messaging service, for $19 billion.

Zuckerberg vowed both companies would be run independently, but over the years the services have become increasingly integrated. Users are now able to link accounts and share content across the platforms. Instagram now has more than 1 billion users worldwide. Such integration could make it more difficult to break off the companies.

NetChoice, a Washington trade association that includes Facebook as a member, quickly panned the lawsuits. The case for antitrust enforcement against Facebook “has never been weaker,” NetChoice vice president Carl Szabo said in a statement, pointing to newer social services such as TikTok and Snapchat as rivals that could “overtake” older platforms.

“These lawsuits mark an important turning point in the battle to rein in Big Tech monopolies and to reinvigorate antitrust enforcement,” said Alex Harman, competition policy advocate for Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.

( Originally published on Dec 10, 2020 )

US antitrust case targets Google’s search practices

On Thursday, after a barrage of antitrust lawsuits, Google mounted a defense of its most valuable business. The response showed it’s not a Ma Bell breakup Google fears, but being forced to alter its crown jewel—the search engine.

The latest US monopoly case against the company came from 38 state attorneys general, led by Colorado, piling on to a separate state case, filed the day before, and one from the Justice Department. Colorado’s suit accuses Alphabet Inc.’s Google of abusing its “virtually untrammeled power over internet search traffic.” It’s a familiar complaint from rivals in adjacent businesses, such as Yelp Inc. and TripAdvisor Inc., who have long said that Google favours its own stuff in search results and advertising.

The case echoes earlier antitrust action from the European Union, which has fined Google more than $9 billion since 2015. But it may have a greater impact. State attorneys said they spoke to European trust-busters and devised more assertive measures for their own case. “Fines are just like kicking the gorilla in the shins,” said Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson.

Ploy to Benefit Middlemen: Google
“We fortunately have remedies that are much broader in scope than what some of the foreign competition authorities have.”

Thursday’s complaint makes no specific demands, but Google has interpreted the case as a ploy to force a redesign of its search engine, a move it said would benefit web “aggregators” at the expense of retailers, airlines, hotels and local businesses. “This lawsuit demands changes to the design of Google Search, requiring us to prominently feature online middlemen in place of direct connections to businesses,” Adam Cohen, Google’s director of economic policy, wrote in a blog post.

Rob Atkinson, president of ITIF, a research group Google has funded, put it more bluntly: “If successful, the lawsuit today would roll back nearly two decades of search innovation, leaving consumers worse off.”

Google said it would challenge the case in court. In a press conference Thursday, the company denied any wrongdoing and said the new lawsuit mirrored an earlier probe from the Federal Trade Commission, which ended with no major action against the company in 2013. Google also said the suit’s goal is to degrade its search in favor of these “middlemen”—citing web conglomerate IAC/InterActive Corp., run by Google critic Barry Diller, as one example.

One new critique raised in the lawsuit involves a Google tool for buying search ads, called SA360. The tool allows large advertisers to purchase ads across a range of Google platforms—but when Microsoft Corp.’s Bing asked for the same treatment, Google refused, according to the complaint. Microsoft officials didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The result is a deck stacked against Bing and other competitors, the case alleges. Google’s dominance in search advertising “is the result of a rigged race, like a 200-meter dash where Google supplies itself a motorbike while its competitors are on foot,” the lawsuit reads.

The state lawyers disputed the company’s argument that their goal is making internet search worse. “It’s just not true,” Maura Healey, the Massachusetts attorney general, who joined the Colorado suit, said on Bloomberg TV.

As for the fixes, the states are eyeing “a range of remedies,” she said. “Certainly the first thing that needs to happen is these companies need to stop doing the things they are doing.”

View: We research misinformation on Facebook. It just disabled our accounts

We learned last week that Facebook had disabled our Facebook accounts and our access to data that we have been using to study how misinformation spreads on the company’s platform.

We were informed of this in an automated email. In a statement, Facebook says we used “unauthorized means to access and collect data” and that it shut us out to comply with an order from the Federal Trade Commission to respect the privacy of its users.

This is deeply misleading. We collect identifying information only about Facebook’s advertisers. We believe that Facebook is using privacy as a pretext to squelch research that it considers inconvenient. Notably, the acting director of the F.T.C.’s consumer protection bureau told Facebook last week that the “insinuation” that the agency’s order required the disabling of our accounts was “inaccurate.”

“The F.T.C. is committed to protecting the privacy of people, and efforts to shield targeted advertising practices from scrutiny run counter to that mission,” the acting director, Samuel Levine, wrote to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive.

Our team at N.Y.U.’s Center for Cybersecurity has been studying Facebook’s platform for three years. Last year, we deployed a browser extension we developed called Ad Observer that allows users to voluntarily share information with us about ads that Facebook shows them. It is this tool that has raised the ire of Facebook and that it pointed to when it disabled our accounts.

In the course of our overall research, we’ve been able to demonstrate that extreme, unreliable news sources get more “engagement” — that is, user interaction — on Facebook, at the expense of accurate posts and reporting. What’s more, our work shows that the archive of political ads that Facebook makes available to researchers is missing more than 100,000 ads.

There is still a lot of important research we want to do. When Facebook shut down our accounts, we had just begun studies intended to determine whether the platform is contributing to vaccine hesitancy and sowing distrust in elections. We were also trying to figure out what role the platform may have played leading up to the Capitol assault on Jan. 6.

We are privacy and cybersecurity researchers whose careers are built on protecting users. That’s why we’ve been so careful to make sure that our Ad Observer tool collects only limited and anonymous information from the users who agreed to participate in our research. And it is also why we made the tool’s source code public so that Facebook and others can verify that it does what we say it does.

We strongly believe we are not violating Facebook’s terms of service, as the company contends. But even if we had been, Facebook could have authorized our research. As Facebook declared in announcing the disabling of our accounts, “We’ll continue to provide ways for responsible researchers to conduct studies that are in the public interest while protecting the security of our platform and the privacy of people who use it.”

Our research is responsible and in the public interest. We’ve protected the privacy of our volunteers. Essentially, our ad tool collects the ads our volunteers see on their Facebook accounts, plus information provided by Facebook about when and why they were shown the ads and who paid for them. These ads are seen by the specific audience the advertiser targets.

This tool provides a way to see what entities are trying to influence the public, and how they’re doing it. We think that’s important to democracy. Yet Facebook has denied us important access to continue to do much of our work.

One of the odd things about this dispute is that while Facebook has barred us from research tools available to users and other academic researchers, it has not blocked our Ad Observer browser either by technical or legal means. It is still operational, and we are still collecting data from volunteers.

Still, by shutting us off from its own research tools, Facebook is making our work harder. This is unfortunate. Facebook isn’t protecting privacy. It’s not even protecting its advertisers. It’s protecting itself from scrutiny and accountability.

The company suggests the Ad Observer is unnecessary, that researchers can study its platform with tools the company provides. But the data Facebook makes available is woefully inadequate, as the gaps we’ve found in its political ad archive prove. If we were to rely on Facebook, we simply could not study the spread of misinformation on topics ranging from elections to the Capitol riot to Covid-19 vaccines.

By blocking us from its platform, Facebook sent us a message: It wants to stop us from examining how it operates.

We have a message for Facebook: The public deserves more transparency about the systems the company uses to sell the public’s attention to advertisers and the algorithms it employs to promote content. We will keep working to ensure the public gets that transparency.