Mnuchin Urges Antitrust Probe of Tech After Google Report

(Bloomberg) -- Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin urged the Justice Department to review the power that large technology firms such as Google have over the American economy, the latest U.S. official to back antitrust scrutiny of the industry.

A “60 Minutes” segment on Sunday devoted to assertions that Alphabet Inc.’s Google wields a destructive monopoly in online search hammered home the notion of the company’s dominance during a time of heightened public concern with technology giants. The report didn’t include new allegations about the company.

“These issues deserve to be reviewed carefully,” Mnuchin said in a CNBC interview early Monday in response to a question about the CBS News report. “These are issues the Justice Department needs to look at seriously, not for any one company, but as these technology companies have a greater and greater impact on the economy.”

Mnuchin adds to a chorus of concern in Washington about technology firms’ effects on competition in various markets. Last month, the head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, Makan Delrahim, said competition officials need to keep an eye on digital platform companies that may be abusing their market power to thwart rivals.

And last week, Joe Simons, the new chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, which shares antitrust jurisdiction with the Justice Department, told senators he’s aware of the concerns raised about the size of technology firms, and he vowed that the agency would scrutinize mergers and conduct by the companies.

Facebook’s Power

Michael Carrier, a professor of antitrust law at Rutgers University, said Delrahim is certainly listening to comments by Mnuchin and President Donald Trump, who has railed against Amazon.com Inc., but won’t jump to open an investigation.

“It means that maybe he’s going to look more carefully, but at the end of the day, if there is not a case that Google violated the antitrust laws, I don’t think he’s going to bring a case,” Carrier said. “Sure, these companies are big but that doesn’t mean they violated the antitrust laws.”

The "60 Minutes" report highlighted how critics and rivals, such as Yelp Inc., are trying to bring Europe’s antitrust approach to Google to the U.S. Margrethe Vestager, the European Union competition commissioner, told CBS that she is intent on stopping Google’s “illegal behavior” in web search, suggesting that the regulator isn’t appeased by the company’s proposed solution for the hefty charges the EU filed last year.

“You have to look at the power they have and it’s something the Justice Department I hope takes a serious look at,” Mnuchin said, though he added that “issues of monopolies are out of my lane” and that it’s up to the Justice Department to review antitrust violations.

On Monday, a group of organizations, including MoveOn.org and the Open Markets Institute, called for the FTC to break up Facebook Inc., saying it has too much power over democracy. The group wants Facebook’s Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger spun off into separate businesses.

In response, Facebook said it operates in a competitive environment in which the average person uses eight different apps to communicate and stay connected.

“People use Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger because they find them valuable, and we’ve been able to better fight spam and abuse and build new features much faster by working under one roof,” the company said Monday in a statement.

The Justice Department declined to comment. Google didn’t respond to a request for comment.

CBS featured guests who argued Google abuses its dominance in search and search advertising. It didn’t show any evidence that U.S. lawmakers or enforcement agencies will target the company, according to a transcript. Nor did the segment mention the potential cases Vestager is pursuing against Google for its Android mobile software and advertising business.

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