Newsman: The Federal Trade Commission sued to break up Facebook on Wednesday, asking a federal court to force the sell-off of assets such as Instagram and WhatsApp as independent businesses. Meanwhile, Attorneys general from 48 states and territories said they were filing their own lawsuit against Facebook, reflecting the broad and bipartisan concern about how much power Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, have accumulated on the internet. But the states’ suit does not explicitly call for Facebook to be broken apart, instead asking a federal court to halt Facebook’s anti-competitive conduct in general and take any other action that the court sees fit.
New York Attorney General Letitia James said announcing the states’ lawsuit at a news conference,
“By using its vast troves of data and money, Facebook has squashedor hindered what the company perceived as threats.” She said that the states’ lawsuit was aimed not only at Facebook’s past acquisitions of rivals but on its treatment of competitor apps. She said Facebook “squeezed oxygen” from the tech industry with its practices.
“It also sent a clear message to the industry: Don’t step on Facebook’s turf,” James said. She quoted one tech executive who said they feared “the wrath of Mark,” referring to Zuckerberg.
The Federal Trade Commission’s lawsuit asks the court to order the “divestiture of assets, divestiture or reconstruction of businesses (including, but not limited to, Instagram and/or WhatsApp),” as well as other possible relief the court might want to add. The Federal Trade Commission said in the lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington, D.C.. “Facebook has maintained its monopoly position by buying up companies that present competitive threats and by imposing restrictive policies that unjustifiably hinder actual or potential rivals that Facebook does not or cannot acquire,” the commission.
Antitrust enforcement has been building on nearly all the big tech companies.The announcement is a major step that has been years in the making, with Facebook and several other major U.S. technology companies having grown quickly in the past 10 years with little government oversight. But the lack of scrutiny has changed recently, with a series of lawsuits that now threaten to rein in the dominance of big American tech firms that have grown to be among the world’s most valuable companies.
President-elect Joe Biden told The New York Times editorial board in January, “I’ve never been a fan of Facebook, as you probably know. I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan. I think he’s a real problem.”
Biden said there was an “overwhelming arrogance” in Silicon Valley, and that Facebook’s failure to stop Russian operatives from using its services during the 2016 presidential election was “close to criminal.” 2
“Breakup Facebook” has become a rally cry for the company’s critics — from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to one of Facebook’s wealthy founders, Chris Hughes, who last year wrote a 6,000-word case for a break-up. But the idea has never been truly attempted in court.
Facebook said it was reviewing the two lawsuits, and pointed out that the FTC approved the Instagram and WhatsApp acquisitions at the time.
“Years after the FTC cleared our acquisitions, the government now wants a do-over with no regard for the impact that precedent would have on the broader business community or the people who choose our products every day,” Facebook said in a statement, adding that it would have more to say soon.
Zuckerberg has previously vowed a vigorous defense. Last year, he told employees in an internal meeting that if the government sued to break up Facebook, “then I would bet that we will have a legal challenge, and I would bet that we will win the legal challenge.”
“At the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight,” Zuckerberg said.
Even if government lawyers win a judgment against Facebook, it would be up to a federal judge what to do about the company’s dominant position. It’s rare for a big company to be broken up, but it’s happened in the past, as with AT&T in 1984.
Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion in 2012 in a deal that was approved by the FTC at the time in a 5-0 vote, at a time when Instagram wasn’t widely used. Facebook bought WhatsApp in 2014 for around $22 billion.
Facebook is already facing a proposed class action brought by app developers claiming illegal monopolistic behavior.