Two groups of US state attorneys general announced antitrust investigations of Facebook and Google on Friday to probe whether the internet giants have unfairly leveraged their services to dominate the online advertising market.
New York with seven other states and the District of Columbia will investigate “whether Facebook has stifled competition and put users at risk,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said.
“The largest social media platform in the world must follow the law,” James tweeted.
The other states attorneys general joining the action included Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, and Tennessee.
Read more: Washington to Big Tech: You’re on notice
Facebook’s vice president for state and local policy, Will Castleberry, said the company would work constructively alongside the authorities.
“People have multiple choices for every one of the services we provide,” he said. “We understand that if we stop innovating, people can easily leave our platform. This underscores the competition we face, not only in the United States but around the globe.”
Whether hate speech, propaganda or activism, governments across the globe have upped efforts to curb content deemed illegal from circulating on social networks. From drawn-out court cases to blanket bans, DW examines how some countries try to stop the circulation of illicit content while others attempt to regulate social media.
After a public debate in Germany, a new law on social media came into effect in October. The legislation imposes heavy fines on social media companies, such as Facebook, for failing to take down posts containing hate speech. Facebook and other social media companies have complained about the law, saying that harsh rules might lead to unnecessary censorship.
In 2014, the European Court of Justice ruled that European citizens had the right to request search engines, such as Google and Bing, remove “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive” search results linked to their name. Although Google has complied with the ruling, it has done so reluctantly, warning that it could make the internet as “free as the world’s least free place.”
In May 2017, Ukraine imposed sanctions on Russian social media platforms and web services. The blanket ban affected millions of Ukrainian citizens, many of whom were anxious about their data. The move prompted young Ukrainians to protest on the streets, calling for the government to reinstate access to platforms that included VKontakte (VK), Russia’s largest social network.
In 2015, the European Court of Justice ruled that Safe Harbor, a 15-year-old pact between the US and EU that allowed the transfer of personal data without prior approval, was effectively invalid. Austrian law student Max Schrems launched the legal proceedings against Facebook in response to revelations made by former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, Edward Snowden.
In China, the use of social media is highly regulated by the government. Beijing has effectively blocked access to thousands of websites and platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. Instead, China offers its citizens access to local social media platforms, such as Weibo and WeChat, which boast hundreds of millions of monthly users.
Many politicians and media outlets blame Russia’s influence for Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016. Moscow reportedly used Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Instagram to shape public opinion on key issues. In October 2017, Twitter suspended over 2,750 accounts due to alleged Russian propaganda. The platform also banned ads from RT (formerly Russia Today) and the Sputnik news agency.
With social media under pressure for allowing alleged Russian meddling, Facebook announced a new project to combat such efforts in November 2017. The upcoming page will give users a chance to check if they “liked” or followed an alleged propaganda account on Facebook or Instagram. Meanwhile, Facebook has come under fire for not protecting user data in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Second coalition targets Google
Another coalition of states, led by Texas and announced by the state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, is set to launch an antitrust probe into “whether large tech companies have engaged in anticompetitive behavior that stifled competition, restricted access, and harmed consumers.”
The investigation will reportedly target Google in particular and will likely include up to 40 other states.
Read more: Why you should think twice about giving Facebook your mobile number
Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., said it had received a civil investigative demand from the US Department of Justice at the end of August requesting documents relating to previous antitrust investigations against it in the United States and elsewhere.
“We expect to receive in the future similar investigative demands from state attorneys general,” Alphabet said.
The tech company confirmed that it would continue its cooperation with the Department of Justice.
Scrutiny from all sides
In June of this year, the US Department of Justice announced a “review” of major online platforms to examine whether they have stifled innovation of diminished competition.
Facebook and Google are two of the largest tech companies in the world, with billions using their services. The internet giants target users for their personal data, which can contribute to and enhance the power of the companies.
Regulators are exploring whether the firms used their market power to squeeze out competition.
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The probes mark a widening in the scope of scrutiny the tech giants are facing beyond federal and congressional investigations into their market dominance.
Facebook is currently facing a number of ongoing investigations and legal threats, including from the US Department of Justice, the US Federal Trade Commission, the Irish Data Protection Commission, and the US Congress.
The new probe “shows how unease with large tech companies is spreading beyond Congress and the federal government agencies to the states,” said Michael Carrier, professor of antitrust law at Rutgers University. “With each passing day, there are greater fears about these companies controlling our online lives.”
mmc/sms (Reuters, AP, AFP)