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US: Big Tech antitrust examination by AGs gathers steam

 |  November 18, 2019

Antitrust headlines dominated the regulatory sphere this past week – focused, of course, on marquee names such as Facebook and Google.

In one salvo, lawmakers in the US House of Representatives said antitrust regulators should take action against larger tech firms, which typically evaded much oversight at the expense of smaller players.

As reported by Reuters and elsewhere, members of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee expressed frustration over the acquisitive pace seen by the tech firms.

At a hearing of the antitrust subcommittee on November 13, Makan Delrahim, the assistant attorney general of the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice, said they were focusing on how personalized advertising transactions actually work.

“By understanding these competitive dynamics, we can understand how the market leaders have monopoly power, how they exercise that monopoly power and whether the source of that power is for merit-based competition or the source of that power is exclusionary,” Delrahim said.

The DOJ has been looking into Big Tech firms, while the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is investigating Facebook and Amazon.

In terms of individual companies, Google was singled out as subcommittee Rep. David Cicilline said deals such as the US$2.1 Fitbit bid showed that “the hubris of the executive team to pursue an acquisition of this size while under federal and state antitrust investigations is astonishing.”

And Google, of course, may be facing investigations of a wider scope, as the antitrust investigation will be expanded beyond advertising to include search and Android businesses. As has been widely reported, back in September, 50 attorneys general announced an investigation into whether Google has abused its position in the online advertising market.

The investigation is being led by the Attorney General of Texas Ken Paxton, and involves 48 states, Washington DC and Puerto Rico.

This time around, the AGs are reportedly in the process of preparing subpoenas known as civil investigating demands for the expanded push to examine the search and Android businesses. The subpoenas may look for materials spanning emails and strategy documents.

Outside the US

Beyond US shores, Nippon.com reported that a Japanese government panel last week reaffirmed a plan to put tougher regulations in place that would govern the online shopping platforms run by technology firms.

The site reported that the “future investment panel,” which is chaired by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said companies that should be examined include Amazon, Z Holdings (formerly Yahoo! Japan Corp.) and Rakuten. Under the terms of the proposed regulations, the firms would be required to disclose how they decide search result rankings and report their operational status. Further details will be worked out next year, according to reports. Under scrutiny, too, has been the alleged practice of companies that pay fees to the firms having their products ranked higher than would otherwise be seen.

Crypto, Too

In the cryptocurrency arena, the Director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) Kenneth Blanco said on Friday, November 15, that there will be strict implementation of new rules that would force crypto exchanges, marketplaces and digital wallets to identify their customers. That identification would take place above a certain monetary threshold, according to a report by Reuters.

As reported in this space last week, one part of the anti-money laundering (AML) regulations is the “travel rule,” which compels exchanges to disclose identities of recipients and receivers for money transfers of US$3,000 or higher.

“It [travel rule] applies to CVCs [convertible virtual currencies], and we expect that you will comply, period,” Blanco said. “That’s what our expectation is. You will comply. I don’t know what the shock is. This is nothing new.”

The amount of money laundering may exceed US$4.3 billion this year, according to reports.

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