House committee probing tech giants asks for internal emails, algorithm details

U.S. lawmakers investigating potential antitrust violations by the tech industry’s largest players want the inside story on their pivotal acquisitions and recent controversies.

The House Judiciary Committee today sent request for information letters to Facebook Inc., Amazon.com Inc., Apple Inc. and Google LLC parent Alphabet Inc. as part of a competition probe started this year.

The committee leaders have drawn up a long list of records that the companies will need to turn over by Oct. 14. Among the sought-after items are documents submitted in the past to U.S. and foreign regulators, as well as internal executive emails pertaining to major business decisions.

House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-New York) said the requests have four main objectives. “The documents requested will provide the committee with a better understanding of the degree to which these intermediaries enjoy market power, how they are using that market power, whether they are using their dominance in ways that have harmed our economy or democracy, and how Congress should respond.”

The committee appears to have taken a particular interest in the four tech giants’ acquisitions of other companies. All the information requests ask for executive correspondence related to major acquisitions such as Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp and Google’s purchase of DoubleClick, a transaction that happened all the way back in 2008.

The context behind the Congressional letters is that the Federal Trade Commission this year formed a tech-focused task force with the authority to, among other things, reverse past acquisitions. It’s impossible to say if Congress’ probe will increase the chance of that happening. However, that risk is something Silicon Valley will probably be taking more seriously as lawmakers ramp up their investigation.

Many of the other subjects that the House wants clarification on besides the acquisitions are also fairly high-profile issues. In the case of Apple, for  instance, lawmakers are seeking information about the App Store’s controversial search algorithm. The algorithm was the subject of a recent New York Times investigation that found the iPhone maker’s apps had in many cases ranked higher than more popular rival services. 

From Facebook, lawmakers are requesting emails in which executives discussed policies toward third-party developers, while Amazon is being asked to open up about topics such as how it treats third party sellers on its platform. Google will have to provide information about its core ad business. 

Congress is requesting documents about numerous other business decisions as well, in a sign that the probe could become quite broad. The widening scope of the effort means that the House Judiciary Committee’s efforts may end up partially overlapping with state-level probes currently facing the tech industry. 

Two groups of attorney generals representing 50 states and territories are planning to look into Google and Facebook over antitrust concerns. The FTC is conducting its own investigation into the social network along similar lines, while the Justice Department recently joined the fray as well.

Photo: Joye/Flickr

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