A lot of lawyers at Amazon and Google had to cancel plans this past weekend, I'm willing to bet. 

The reason: a series of news reports that broke over the weekend, suggesting the federal government is teeing up antitrust investigations against both tech giants.

The news started dripping out Friday evening, with reports that the Justice Department was looking at Google.

And on Sunday, The Washington Post reported that Amazon is now facing "heightened antitrust scrutiny" by the Federal Trade Commission, after the FTC worked out an agreement with the Justice Department.

In other words -- and as a nonpracticing lawyer, I find this really interesting -- the two federal agencies in charge of antitrust investigation reportedly just worked out a deal in which one of them would go after Google, and the other one would scrutinize Amazon.

At this point, all of us on the outside (along with the lawyers at Amazon and Google), are left to speculate and wonder what the agencies have in mind. Lawsuits have not been filed to our knowledge. 

But, "if there is an active discussion of where the boundaries are, that would indicate there's a reason for that discussion," as Maureen Ohlhausen, a partner at the law firm Baker Botts who previously served as chair of the FTC, told the Post.

Google has weathered antitrust investigations before, including a 2013 FTC probe that led to no changes, and some big fines in Europe, as the Post points out, and "E.U. officials are actively investigating Amazon."

This seems like a new, tougher era, however, and a time when the dangers for the tech giants are much more acute.

In part it's the difference between the Obama administration and the Trump administration's approach to the tech giants. In part it's that public sentiment has mostly shifted against the tech giants over the past few years: Google dropped 13 points to 46th this year in a Harris Poll; Facebook fell 43 spots to 94th.

(Exception to the rule however, is Amazon, which is ranked No. 2, down from No. 1 last year.)

That said, we're in a time when both Republicans and Democrats want to look at the idea of breaking up big tech companies. Let's put it this way: Find another issue, if you can, on which both Attorney General William Barr and Senator Elizabeth Warren agree.

Warren has also called for the breakup of Facebook. At this point it almost feels like an insult if you run a tech company and politicians aren't calling for you to be broken up.

And once these investigations start, they can easily take on a life of their own. As Shira Ovide wrote for Bloomberg on Saturday:

"Once the U.S. government pores over every internal email and business development contract, there's no telling what it will turn up. If the DOJ moves ahead, it will also be an open invitation for every company or individual with a gripe against Google to pile on, and an investigation will embolden critics of Facebook, Amazon, and other tech giants as well."

Oh, and Facebook didn't have a great weekend in Washington, either.  

The District's attorney general won a court victory letting his case against the social-media giant go forward, "to begin 'obtaining all of the evidence proving that Facebook broke District law and did not follow its own policies to protect the privacy of more than 340,000 Facebook users who reside in the District.'"

Bottom line: you probably had a better weekend than the lawyers from Amazon, Facebook, and Google.

Published on: Jun 3, 2019
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