House Panel Requests Documents From Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple in Probe

By Bowen Xiao
Bowen Xiao
Bowen Xiao
Bowen Xiao is a New York-based reporter at The Epoch Times. He covers national security, human trafficking and U.S. politics.
September 15, 2019 Updated: September 15, 2019

House lawmakers have demanded that big tech companies Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple turn over a wide range of documents including sensitive internal emails from the companies’ top executives, the biggest development so far in a bipartisan congressional antitrust probe.

Leaders of the House Judiciary Committee and its subcommittee on antitrust sent out separate letters on Sept. 13 to the four companies, seeking the documents as well as detailed financial information and other company records. The order comes as both Republicans and Democrats in Congress conduct a sweeping investigation into the tech companies and their effect on competition and consumers.

The letters requested internal emails over the past decade from Apple CEO Tim Cook, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Alphabet CEO Larry Page, as well as other top executives about acquisitions; the deadline was set for Oct. 14. The House letters offer the first concrete evidence of a wide-ranging antitrust investigation.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) signed the letters, along with ranking member Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), Antitrust subcommittee chair Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), and subcommittee ranking member Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.).

Big tech companies are facing a historic wave of scrutiny, with antitrust investigations launched at both the state and federal level. The Justice Department (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission are investigating Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon for potential violations of antitrust law. A partnership of about 50 U.S. states and territories, led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, is also probing Google’s practices, while a separate bipartisan coalition of attorneys general in eight states are looking at possible antitrust issues with Facebook.

The committee requested information from the companies’ executives on market share, competitors, their largest customers for specific products, and documents from other investigations. On Sept. 12, the House antitrust panel held a hearing on the effects of consumer data collection by big tech platforms on other companies and online competition. It was the first of three sessions to focus on antitrust issues.

“The requests by House committees appear to focus on acquisition and potential abuses of market power rather than on agreements among competitors,” New York attorney Barry Barnett, who has expertise in antitrust law, told The Epoch Times in a Sept. 15 email.

“The breadth of the document requests implies a readiness to engage in a possibly long, resource-intensive, and disruptive effort to identify, gather evidence regarding, and potentially bring enforcement actions to halt or reverse acquisitions if they have created or sustained monopolies or aimed to do so.”

Barnett also questioned if investigators are interested in moving away from a “narrow consumer-welfare approach” to one of “antitrust enforcement.”

“Regardless, the probes will likely keep antitrust lawyers busy for years,” he said.

At a hearing of the antitrust panel in July, executives of the four companies pushed back against lawmakers’ accusations that they operate as monopolies, laying out ways in which they say they compete fairly, yet vigorously, against rivals in the marketplace. Cicilline, the chairman of the antitrust subcommittee, said he was dissatisfied with answers the executives gave to lawmakers, calling their testimony “evasive.”

President Donald Trump has accused big tech companies such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google of suppressing and censoring conservative voices.

Facebook, Amazon, and Apple didn’t respond to requests for comment. A Google spokesperson previously referred The Epoch Times to a blog post by Kent Walker, Google‘s senior vice president of global affairs, who said the company is “engaging in robust and fair competition.”

The Big Four

House lawmakers, in their letter to Facebook, asked for internal emails from executives about their acquisitions of Instagram, WhatsApp, and Onavo, and of Facebook’s decision to cut off apps such as MessageMe from its social graph. Financial statements or reports since 2016, for Facebook’s ads, messengers, and Instagram also were requested. Critics say the company intentionally walled itself off from other online apps, enabling it to amass nearly 2.5 billion users with no clear competitor.

For Google, lawmakers seek financial documents on their wide range of products and services including Ad Sense, its Android platform, Gmail, and YouTube, among others. The letter requested internal communications from relevant executives on Google’s 2007 acquisition of online advertising company DoubleClick and Google’s acquisitions of YouTube and Android. Critics often point to Google’s purchase of DoubleClick as pivotal to their advertising dominance.

Financial records of some of Apple’s products and services including their App Store, iCloud, and Siri were requested by lawmakers in their letter. The lawmakers are seeking internal communications on Apple’s decision to remove from the App Store or to impose restrictions on some screen-time and parental-control apps, and on the App Store algorithm that determines the ranked order of search apps on the site, among other areas.

Amazon was asked to hand over financial documents for Alexa, Amazon Prime, Echo, and Whole Foods, among others. Internal emails of executives were requested in the letter regarding Amazon’s algorithm that determines search ranking of products, as well as their policy on the types of data the company does or doesn’t make available to Marketplace sellers.

In July, the Justice Department announced that its antitrust division is “reviewing whether and how market-leading online platforms have achieved market power and are engaging in practices that have reduced competition, stifled innovation, or otherwise harmed consumers.” The department said it will probe concerns related to “search, social media, and some retail services online.” Google has said previously that the Justice Department in August requested documents from the company.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report

Bowen Xiao
Bowen Xiao
Bowen Xiao is a New York-based reporter at The Epoch Times. He covers national security, human trafficking and U.S. politics.