Big Tech Firms Step Up Acquisitions Despite Antitrust Probes

Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft — the five largest U.S. tech firms — are speeding up their acquisitions, even as they are under antitrust investigation by federal officials and state attorneys general. By the end of June, the companies had disclosed 27 deals, up 29 percent from the same period last year, when they announced 21 deals. The increase in purchases could be used as proof by regulators and economists that these companies are using their wealth to dominate competitors and increase their market share.

Bloomberg reports that New York University law professor Scott Hemphill stated that, “until there’s some enforcement in this area, companies are likely to think they can get away with it, and if they can get away it, they’re likely to try.” Among this year’s acquisitions are “Facebook’s $400 million purchase of Giphy, a library of video clips and animated images; Amazon’s pending bid for autonomous vehicle startup Zoox; and Apple’s acquisition of weather app Dark Sky.”

As Northeastern University economist John Kwoka put it, “their regular practice is to vacuum up everybody in their space that could have emerged as a rival or may have been an alternative in some fashion.”

Although the FTC said it would look at tech deals that closed between 2010 and 2019, it didn’t since “they fell below the thresholds for reporting transactions.” Many such deals — in the European Union as well as the U.S. — “have flown under the radar with slim or no review by competition regulators around the world, often because target companies have little or no revenue.” But Hemphill noted that, “it only takes a few bad deals that, if permitted, can wreak enormous harm.”

In the midst of COVID-19, the five companies are “sitting on more than $450 billion in cash and short-term investments.” Public Knowledge policy counsel Alex Petros pointed out that, due to the recession, “it’s an opportunity for the platforms to entrench their dominant position.” Purchases also let the Big Tech companies prevent potential rivals from “getting their hands on promising ideas.” Apple, for example, is “shutting down the Dark Sky app for Google Android phones.”

Elsewhere, Bloomberg reports that the Justice Department’s current inquiry into Google, joined by states led by Texas, is one of the probes that have the potential to become the biggest U.S. antitrust case since the Justice Department and states sued Microsoft in 1998 for abusing its monopoly in computer-operating systems.” It also reports that, “in the U.S., Google and Facebook together collect more than half of digital advertising spending, Apple has about 46 percent of the smartphone market, and about 38 percent of all e-commerce sales go through Amazon.”

In the last 10 years, Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft have made almost 500 purchases worth $161 billion. But the U.S. has slowed down considerably on bringing monopoly cases to court, from “an average of 15.7 cases per year from 1970 to 1999 to less than three between 2000 and 2014.”