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US lawmakers demand internal Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon documents in antitrust probe

US lawmakers have given big tech companies a deadline to disclose a wide range of documents as the House Judiciary Committee’s bipartisan investigation into competition gathers pace

US lawmakers have stepped up the pressure on big US technology companies by requesting they disclose a raft of documents about their business practices as part of a wide-ranging investigation into big technology companies.

The House Judiciary Committee has written to the chief executives of Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon, asking them to disclose detailed information about their competitors, customers and acquisitions of rival companies, including the internal communications of top executives.

US lawmakers began “a top-to-bottom” review of the market power of big technology companies in the summer, citing concerns that a small number of dominant, unregulated platforms were able to exert extraordinary power over commerce, communications and online information.

The move comes as scrutiny of US technology companies intensifies in the Europe and the US.

In Europe, competition minister Margrethe Vestager said competition authorities in the European Union (EU) need to be prepared to take action if technology companies such as Google and Facebook are using their control of data to undermine competition and harm European consumers.

She said in a speech last week that the EU’s data protection laws may not be enough to regulate the way companies use people’s private data to draw conclusions about individuals or to undermine democracy.

“We may also need broader rules to make sure that the way companies collect and use data doesn’t harm the fundamental values of our society,” she said.

Meanwhile, New York attorney general Letitia James has launched a bipartisan investigation by a coalition of US attorneys general into antitrust claims against Facebook and Google.

“We will use every investigative tool at our disposal to determine whether Facebook’s actions may have endangered consumer data, reduced the quality of consumers’ choices, or increased the price of advertising,” she said in a statement.

The committee’s letters were signed by Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, David Cicilline, chairman of its antitrust sub-committee, and ranking members Doug Collins and James Sensenbrenner.

“We will use every investigative tool at our disposal to determine whether Facebook’s actions may have endangered consumer data, reduced the quality of consumers’ choices, or increased the price of advertising”
Letitia James, New York attorney general

“There is growing evidence that a handful of corporations have come to capture an outsized share of online commerce and communications,” said Nadler.

Swathe of Facebook documents

Lawmakers have written to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to request a swathe of documents from the company.

They include a wide-ranging list of correspondence from its senior executives, covering Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram, WhatsApp and Onavo. The latter is a VPN service that allowed Facebook to surreptitiously gather intelligence about its rivals.

The representatives are also seeking details on Facebook’s decision to cut off the social media platform’s data to a range of apps created by independent developers to run on the Facebook platform, including MessageMe, Phhhoto, Stackla, Tiiny, Vine and Voxer.

The letter, which refers to an article by Computer Weekly, also requests details on any decisions by Facebook to deny any specific third-party apps or categories of apps that have access to Facebook’s application programming interfaces (APIs), or to require them to buy advertisements in order to maintain access to data.

Many of the documents requested by the committee have been placed under seal in a court case in California, brought by app developer Six4Three against Facebook, which claims the social media company unfairly destroyed its business by cutting off its access to Facebook data.

Copies of the documents were also seized by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee in the UK, chaired by Damian Collins MP.

Searching Google

The House Judiciary Committee has asked Larry Page, CEO of Google parent Alphabet, to disclose extensive information about its products, services and competitors, along with correspondence from the company’s senior executives on Google’s acquisition of the advertising service DoubleClick, YouTube, Android and other companies.

The lawmakers ask whether competing companies can place adverts on YouTube and take part in Google’s advertising auctions, and request details of Google’s decision to prevent video providers from being displayed in Google’s video search results and the conditions it imposes on Facebook syndication partners.

Google is also asked to disclose details of how it ranks its own services compared with non-Google content in search results, the differences in the way it treats its own web browser Chrome to rivals and ways in which apps on the Google store can be subject to “differential treatment”.

The letter also asks for spreadsheets, charts and documents showing how Google collects data on businesses’ use of Google cloud, how Google can make use of data generated on Google Cloud by business customers, and Google’s use of data from the Android mobile phone operating system.

Amazon quizzed over AWS cloud

The committee’s letter to Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, asks the online retailer to disclose the operation of its search ranking algorithms, how it treats is own branded products compared with other products, and what data it shares with companies that sell on Amazon’s marketplace.

Other questions ask for detailed fees and pricing, including exit frees for the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud service widely used by businesses, and what policies it has on other parts of Amazon using data generated by AWS business customers.

The lawmakers also ask for internal documents on Amazon’s acquisitions of a range of companies, including Abebooks, Audbile, Blink and the Ring.

Apple apps under scrutiny

The committee has asked Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, to disclose documents and correspondence from Apple executives on how Apple ranks apps on its App Store, whether apps can use non-Apple payment systems, and its revenue share policies with app developers.

Important milestone in big tech investigation

David Cicilline, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee antitrust sub-committee, said the request for internal documents from the four big tech companies was an “important milestone” in the committee’s investigation into big tech.

The House Judiciary Committee’s review of big technology aims to document competition problems in digital markets, examine whether dominant firms are engaging in anti-competitive conduct and assess whether US antitrust, completion policies and enforcement efforts are sufficient.

The tech companies have until 14 October to respond.

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