clock menu more-arrow no yes
Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Filed under:

The regulatory fights facing every major tech company

Facebook, Google, and Amazon versus the world

Over the past few years, regulators have taken a newfound interest in the size and power of big tech companies. There’s a growing sense that the major tech platforms aren’t up to the task of governing their users — something the companies themselves will occasionally admit. And while governments deliberate on new data privacy laws, most of the action is coming from government investigations and lawsuits.

It can be hard to keep track of all of those regulatory actions. There are dozens of them happening in tandem right now, and they’re usually supposed to remain secret until they’re brought into court. All we have are intermittent and sometimes contradictory news reports tracking overlapping mandates from a tangle of state and federal agencies.

So to help you keep it straight, we’ve rounded up all of the major investigations in one place, tracking exactly what we know and how we know it. For the purposes of this guide, we’re focusing mostly on the United States and European Union, as those are the places where companies are facing the biggest threat. But as you can see, there’s a lot happening even there. We’ll be keeping this updated as the cases progress; as news breaks, you’ll be able to find it here.

This is a living guide and will be updated as events warrant.

Everyone

There are a number of investigations in the works that could plausibly target any major tech company. And while it’s still early days, you can bet that the major companies are spending a lot of lawyer hours figuring out exactly how worried to be about each of them.

In the US, the Federal Trade Commission has requested a broad range of information from five major tech companies (Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple), including disclosures for many acquisitions that were small enough that they’ve never been reported to the government. There’s no specific target for the investigation — it’s authorized under the provision for “wide-ranging studies that do not have a specific law enforcement purpose” — but it’s surely giving all five of the companies reason to worry.

The industry has also seen sustained pressure from the House Judiciary Committee, which has demonstrated an interest in antitrust action. In September 2019, the committee made formal document requests to Amazon, Facebook, Alphabet, and Apple. In the months that followed, the committee has hosted a string of panels with companies, including Sonos, Tile, and Basecamp, that say they have been negatively affected by alleged monopolies. Congressional investigations tend to be aimed at informing future bills rather than uncovering crimes, so it’s unlikely the pressure will have an immediate impact. Still, these investigations can produce important documents and often lay the groundwork for more aggressive and sustained regulation down the road.

Google

The Department of Justice is where the heavy lifting gets done on American antitrust action. It’s the agency that took on Microsoft in the 1990s and broke up Bell before that — the only two reference points we have for government action against companies as powerful as Google. The Justice Department doesn’t comment on investigations until charges have been filed, so we only know what’s leaked out, which is probably far from the whole picture.

But here’s what we do know: sometime during the summer of 2019, the Justice Department started looking into tech companies generally, sending out investigative queries to companies that dealt with Facebook, Google, Amazon, and others. In the months that followed, that general investigation has settled into a specific antitrust probe of Google, although we still don’t know of the many dimensions of possible monopolizing the department might be focusing on. Still, the investigation has gone far enough for antitrust chief Makan Delrahim to publicly recuse himself for former lobbying work, and every indication is that it’s moving swiftly.

At the state level, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is leading 49 other offices in a massive antitrust investigation of Google. The investigation focuses on Google’s search and ad businesses and is apparently working in tandem with the Justice Department’s antitrust probe, bringing about a significant increase in staff for many offices. So far, Google has turned over more than 100,000 documents, although some prosecutors are concerned it is concealing records.

Google’s biggest regulatory troubles have come from the EU. Already, the company has faced fines over search manipulation and AdSense contract terms ($2.7 billion and $1.9 billion, respectively), along with a wave of smaller rulings and fines. Google was also forced to peel off Google Shopping from search and separate the Android platform from the Google services that support it financially. (The Android case came with an additional $5 billion fine.) German regulators are also looking into how Google stores data from its voice assistant, along with a host of smaller breach-related claims.

YouTube

The most intense regulatory pressure on Google-owned YouTube has come from perceived violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), the US law covering children’s privacy online. After a September 2019 settlement, YouTube agreed to pay $170 million and implement special provisions for videos targeted at children, ensuring the company didn’t violate COPPA.

But in practice, those protections mean effectively demonetizing any videos that could be considered to be directed at children, which leaves channels in a difficult place. Further FTC action would most likely be pointed at channels rather than YouTube itself.

Facebook

Facebook has had the most immediate troubles from the FTC, which handed down a $5 billion fine over Cambridge Analytica violations on Facebook and was broadly criticized for not doing enough to actually change the company’s behavior. Beyond that, the FTC is conducting some kind of antitrust investigation into Facebook (the company disclosed it on an earnings call in July 2019), but we don’t know how long it’s been running or what it’s focused on.

In early 2019, it was reported the prosecutors at the Eastern District of New York were scrutinizing Facebook’s data-sharing deals for antitrust implications, but the office has been quiet since then. More recently, there have been reports of Attorney General William Barr pushing for an investigation into Facebook (related to the Justice Department’s Google probe). But so far, there’s no hard evidence that such a probe has actually launched.

There’s also a coalition of nine attorneys general investigating Facebook, led by New York AG Letitia James. Announced in September 2019, the investigation will reportedly focus on whether Facebook “endangered consumer data, reduced the quality of consumers’ choices, or increased the price of advertising.”

Facebook’s Libra proposal is the subject of a preliminary antitrust investigation by the EU.

Amazon

While Amazon has been at the center of the recent resurgence in antitrust legal scholarship, surprisingly little of that has carried over to actual investigations. The FTC has jurisdiction to investigate the company as part of its informal deal with the Justice Department, but we’ve heard very little about what that investigation will mean.

We know the FTC has been making preliminary inquiries into Apple and Amazon’s unique reseller arrangement, and there have also been reports of a broader investigation into how the company treats third-party resellers on Marketplace. EU antitrust regulators are conducting a similar investigation. Still, it’s unclear if those investigations will cohere into specific charges.

Apple

The biggest regulatory complaint against Apple is the way the company runs its iOS app store. Subscription services like Spotify have argued that Apple’s 30 percent commission on App Store purchases is abusive, a product of Apple’s unique level of control over the software that can be installed on its phones. None of the major US regulators have taken up that cause, but the courts have viewed the argument favorably: in May 2019, the Supreme Court allowed a civil antitrust lawsuit against Apple to proceed on those grounds. EU regulators are also closely examining the case.

Beyond that, Apple deals with a regular string of product defect investigations and lawsuits — most recently over batterygate and an iOS FaceTime bug — but none rise to the same level of existential threat that faces Facebook and Google.

The other major regulatory threat to Apple is over encryption, but that’s complex enough that we made a whole other guide for it.