US government begins legal action to break up Facebook's social media 'monopoly'

9 December 2020, 21:05 | Updated: 9 December 2020, 21:23

The US government has begun legal action
The US government has begun legal action. Picture: PA

By Asher McShane

US federal regulators have begun legal action in an effort to break up parts of Facebook, accusing the company of abusing its market dominance over rivals.

The US Federal Trade Commission is seeking an injunction at federal court that could force Facebook into divestment of assets including Instagram and WhatsApp.

In a separate case, 48 states and districts accused the company of abusing its market power in social networking to crush smaller competitors.

The anti-trust lawsuits were announced by the Federal Trade Commission and New York Attorney General Letitia James this evening.

The US government has begun legal action against Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook
The US government has begun legal action against Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook. Picture: PA

Ms James said: "It's really critically important that we block this predatory acquisition of companies and that we restore confidence to the market."

The FTC said Facebook has engaged in a "a systematic strategy" to eliminate its competition, including by purchasing smaller up-and-coming rivals like Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014.

Ms James echoed that in her press conference, saying Facebook "used its monopoly power to crush smaller rivals and snuff out competition, all at the expense of everyday users".

Facebook is the world's biggest social network with 2.7 billion users and a company with a market value of nearly 800 billion US dollars whose CEO Mark Zuckerberg is the world's fifth-richest individual and the most public face of Big Tech.

Facebook did not immediately comment.

Ms James alleged Facebook had a practice of opening its site to third-party app developers, then abruptly cutting off developers that it saw as a threat.

The lawsuit - which includes 46 states, Guam and the District of Columbia - accuses Facebook of anti-competitive conduct and using its market dominance to harvest consumer data and reap a fortune in advertising revenues.

"For years, Facebook has used its monopoly power as a social networking website to stifle competition and innovation and to sell alarming amounts of user data to make money, all at the expense of the many people who use its platform," North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, who was on the executive committee of attorneys general conducting the investigation, said in a news release.

Ms James said the coalition worked collaboratively with the FTC but noted the attorneys general conducted their investigation separately.

Facebook paid one billion dollars for Instagram, bolstering the social networking platform's portfolio a month before its stock went public. At the time, the photo-sharing app had about 30 million users and was not producing any revenue.

Mr Zuckerberg vowed both companies would be run independently, but over the years the services have become increasingly integrated. Users are now able to link accounts and share content across the platforms. Instagram now has more than one billion users worldwide.

Facebook acquired WhatsApp, an encrypted messaging service, for 19 billion dollars.

When Facebook bought WhatsApp, it said it "fosters an environment where independent-minded entrepreneurs can build companies, set their own direction and focus on growth while also benefiting from Facebook's expertise, resources and scale. This approach is working well with Instagram, and WhatsApp will operate in this manner".

But in the coming years, the founders of both Instagram and WhatsApp left Facebook amid disagreements with Mr Zuckerberg.

Facebook has started to integrate Instagram and WhatsApp, most recently by linking the apps' chat functions with its Messenger service. Such integration could make it more difficult to break off the companies.