Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of Facebook. But after more than a year of parallel probes by the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice, state prosecutors, and Congress, it appears the FTC could get the first crack at the social media giant. According to a new report, the agency may be preparing to level an antitrust case against the company, possibly by the end of 2020.
Sources told the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that the FTC has not yet decided if it will bring the suit, but that one is currently being readied. Such a case would involve a challenging, likely long legal fight, but could pose a significant threat to Facebook’s power after years of criticism that the FTC hasn’t done enough to rein the company in. “There has to be a deep awareness of how damaging it would be for the agency if it comes up with nothing,” George Washington University law professor William Kovacic, a former FTC chairman, told the Journal.
The FTC has been investigating Mark Zuckerberg’s company since last year, when it claimed oversight of Facebook in a June 2019 agreement with the DOJ. But Attorney General William Barr overrode that accord and opened his own Facebook probe last fall. While that created additional pressure on the company, it also strained the relationship between the Justice Department and the Trade Commission, threatening to weaken both inquiries. “It doesn’t destine the individual efforts to failure by any means,” Kovacic said at the time, “but it diminishes the prospects of success. It makes it harder to achieve a good result.”
What the FTC’s Facebook case would look like, or what it would mean for the probes being led by the DOJ and other interested parties, is not immediately clear. But the potential lawsuit does seem to signal that talk of reining in big tech could soon translate to action. The Justice Department has been building a potential case against Google’s parent company, Alphabet, for possible anti-competitive behavior. Those charges could be brought in a matter of weeks thanks to a seemingly rushed deadline imposed by Barr, though some lawyers working the case fear that concluding the work too quickly could result in a “half baked” complaint that the company could more easily bat away.
Still, the mere fact of the cases is proof that a “techlash” is still on the horizon, much as Zuckerberg and others have tried to dodge it. The Facebook CEO in particular has actively made inroads with the current administration, meeting with Donald Trump at the White House—a rendezvous he maintains was not shady in the slightest. “We talked about a number of things that were on his mind, and some of the topics that you read about in the news around our work,” Zuckerberg said of the meeting. “I think some of the stuff that people talk about or think gets discussed in these discussions are not really how that works.”
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