Updated at 2:53 p.m. ET
Attorneys general from 46 states, the District of Columbia and Guam as well as the Federal Trade Commission filed much-anticipated lawsuits against Facebook on Wednesday. The suits accuse the social network of abusing its online dominance by gobbling up competitive threats that served to entrench the platform so deeply into the lives of billions of people that rivals could no longer put up a fight.
“For nearly a decade Facebook has used its dominance and monopoly power to crush smaller rivals and snuff out competition, all at the expense of everyday users,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said.
The states’ lawsuit takes particular aim at Facebook’s blockbuster acquisitions of photo-sharing app Instagram and messaging app WhatsApp, posing a historic threat to Facebook’s grip on the two hugely popular properties the social network controls.
The attorneys general allege that Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp were done illegally and are asking the federal court to intervene over possibly spinning off those apps. The lawsuit also asks a court to immediately prevent Facebook from making any acquisitions worth more than $10 million as the case pends.
The suit, the culmination of a yearlong probe, is the latest salvo against Big Tech and comes less than two months after the U.S. Justice Department and 11 states sued Google, alleging the company violated competition law.
In a separate lawsuit, the Federal Trade Commission is also pushing to have Facebook divest from WhatsApp and Instagram. James said the attorneys general look forward to collaborating with the federal agency.
After years of taking a laissez-faire approach to regulating the tech giants, regulators and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have grown increasingly concerned about the power the biggest companies wield over how people live, work, shop and receive information about the most vital topics of the day, like presidential elections and the deadly coronavirus.
“Facebook has ensured that any company that is innovating is just destroyed. Copy, killed, or acquired, that’s the modus operandi of Facebook,” said Sally Hubbard, a former antitrust lawyer in New York’s Attorney General’s Office and author of the new book, Monopolies Suck. “This is a big deal. I think we’re finally turning the tide and re-invigorating our antitrust laws. Everybody is going to benefit when we have markets that are competitive and functioning.”
Along with the Justice Department, the FTC has also been examining tech giants including Apple and Amazon.
“There was a long period where antitrust enforcers and regulators were saying, ‘We need to stay hands-off Big Tech,’ and it’s really becoming clear with cases like this that that time is over,” said Charlotte Slaiman, a former FTC lawyer who now leads competition policy at the advocacy group Public Knowledge.
The investigations could result in Facebook being forced to spin off parts of its business or in far-reaching restrictions on how it operates.
But experts say other outcomes are possible, too. Among them, forcing Facebook to allow people to post simultaneously across platforms not owned by Facebook, letting users view posts from competing social networks within Facebook and permitting friend lists and other data to be exported to rival platforms.
“So it’s easier for people to leave Facebook if they’re not happy with how Facebook is running things,” Slaiman said.
This idea, known in tech circles as “interoperability,” could help introduce more competition into social media and give people choice that has until now been stifled, state investigators allege.
“When Facebook doesn’t have competition, it can abuse us all. It doesn’t have a competitor that is requiring it to do better. People don’t have an option,” adds Hubbard.
Critics say when Facebook is not squashing competition by buying up competitive threats, it is copying rivals, such as copycatting popular features of Snapchat and TikTok.
In a damning report in October accusing Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon of abusing their market dominance, House Democrats zeroed in on Facebook’s acquisition strategy. The report quoted messages between Zuckerberg and a top deputy discussing “neutralizing” a potential competitor as a reason to pursue Instagram.
The report concluded that Facebook’s lack of competition has led to lower quality, harming users’ privacy and fueling the spread of online misinformation. It cited internal documents showing that Facebook is now more worried about competition between its own products than the threat of rivals.
Facebook has said it competes with lots of other companies, often pointing to TikTok, the short video app owned by a Chinese-based company that has surged in popularity since the coronavirus outbreak. It has also said that the success of Instagram, which it bought for $1 billion in 2012, and WhatsApp, which it paid $19 billion for in 2014, were not assured at the time of those purchases and are in large part due to Facebook’s ownership.
Facebook has already faced scrutiny over how it handles user privacy and data. Last year, the company agreed to pay the FTC $5 billion for failing to protect data from being shared with third-party apps.
Experts say from dominating online advertising, which has a cost that can be passed off to consumers, to harvesting vast amounts of data on Americans every day, which can be used to target users with ads or other content, Facebook exerts an unfathomable amount of power that has gone virtually unchecked since the company was founded in a Harvard dorm room in 2004.
“People are used to having been abused by monopoly by having prices jacked up on them. People understand when their cable bill is high and they only have a choice in one or maybe two providers,” said Hubbard, the former New York antitrust enforcer. “People have a harder time understanding how Facebook’s monopoly power makes their life worse.”
Editor’s note: Facebook is among NPR’s financial supporters.