The Facebook Antitrust Lawsuits Explained

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WELP, Wednesday was intense. The U.S. government and more than 40 states sued Facebook for illegally crushing competitors and demanded the company undo its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp.

This is going to be a noisy and long legal mess, as my colleagues Cecilia Kang and Mike Isaac wrote in their article. Let me try to help us understand what’s happening by posing five questions:

1) What’s the argument from the government and from Facebook?

There’s a legal reason Instagram and WhatsApp are at the heart of the state and federal lawsuits. Trying to reduce competition by purchasing rivals is an explicit violation of America’s antitrust laws. That’s exactly what government lawyers say Facebook did and will keep doing.

The tricky thing, however, is that the government had given Facebook permission to buy Instagram and WhatsApp in 2012 and 2014. Facebook’s argument is that it’s unfair for government officials to try a do-over now, and that Facebook made Instagram and WhatsApp better than they could have been on their own.

Mike and Cecilia also wrote about why this case will be difficult for the government to prove.

2) How will the lawsuits affect people who use Facebook?

Lawsuits like this might take years to resolve. Your experience with Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp or Messenger won’t suddenly be different tomorrow.

The more immediate impact from this legal fight could be subtle changes to these social apps because Facebook has one eye on its court cases.

Already, Facebook is working to make messaging features in multiple apps blend together more seamlessly behind the scenes, which could make a breakup more difficult. It’s also possible that Facebook might hold off on new acquisitions or change features in development to avoid hurting the company’s legal arguments. I doubt it, though.

(Read my DealBook colleagues’ take on the Facebook battle, and help them — and me! — solve a mystery in the federal government’s lawsuit. Also, DealBook has a rundown of a virtual panel it convened for experts to discuss the future of Big Tech.)

3) Related: Will this hold Facebook back?

One unknown for all of the tech superstars — whether they’re being sued or not — is if the recent extra attention on everything they do will change them forever.

In an interview last year, Bill Gates said that if Microsoft had not been “distracted” by government antitrust lawsuits that started in 1998, his company’s Windows — and not Google’s Android — could have been the world’s most popular smartphone system. Gates was reflecting a common view among company executives of the time that the lawsuits made Microsoft more cautious and as a result the company missed chances to go in new directions.

Gates was engaging in some revisionist history, but it is possible that Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple or even Microsoft again could alter their behavior because they’re bogged down by court cases or worried about looking like bullies.

Apple probably would not have cut some of the commissions it charges app developers if its business partners hadn’t been saying the company has an unfair monopoly. Companies fearful of unwanted scrutiny could also change things we like about their products and services.

4) Why is this happening now?

Some government officials had tough words for Facebook on Wednesday. But they ignored two important points: They are suing Facebook only after years of their failures to restrain its power and because there is now political will to do so.

The Federal Trade Commission is the same government agency that was pilloried last year for extracting a manageable fine from Facebook and requiring privacy policy changes at the company with uncertain benefits for those of us who use the company’s apps. The same agency approved the acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp.

And the F.T.C., Congress and other government authorities have done little to rewrite rules of the internet to protect Americans’ privacy, restrict corporate power or decide how to balance freedom of expression online with safety for all. Maybe hard-to-win lawsuits against Google and Facebook wouldn’t have been necessary if the government had acted sooner.

What’s changing now is that elected officials and other people in government are united in their frustration with America’s tech superpowers and more willing to call for sweeping changes.

5) What happens next?

Lawyers. So many lawyers.

One thing that nags me about both the Google and Facebook antitrust lawsuits is that people who want to change these companies, the internet and the American economy sometimes see the lawsuits as catchall fixes.

But antitrust cases, even if they’re successful, won’t necessarily address all the various and sometimes inconsistent grievances many people have with those two companies or Big Tech over all.

That doesn’t mean these lawsuits won’t change anything. They might! I certainly have concerns about unfettered and unrestrained giant technology companies, and I’m glad government officials seem willing to think differently about how to take on this challenge. The status quo isn’t working.

No matter what happens with the Facebook case, there is no going back to more carefree times for the tech giants. In world capitals, courtrooms and among the public, we are wrestling with what it means for a handful of rich tech companies to influence our lives, elections, economies and minds.

The feelings about the tech superpowers have changed forever, and it’s bound to affect the companies and us.


  • I cannot express how abnormal this is: On its first day as a public company, the stock price of the unprofitable food delivery company DoorDash soared, and the company is now worth more than Chipotle, KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell combined, my DealBook colleagues wrote. On the heels of Airbnb’s initial public offering, its stock price appears likely to go through the roof, Bloomberg News wrote. I will remind you that there is still a pandemic raging that has cratered the U.S. economy and hurt many businesses and people.

  • Antigovernment organizing in Cuba via WhatsApp and Facebook: The relatively recent widespread availability of internet access on Cubans’ cellphones has led to instances of people posting videos of police encounters and other examples of citizens openly confronting their government, my colleagues reported. The existence of such protests in Cuba is rare, my colleagues said, but may not result in lasting change.

  • Wow, people wear headphones in the shower? Lauren Dragan from the Wirecutter told me this months ago and I didn’t believe it. But The Wall Street Journal writes about people ruining their Apple AirPods headphones by intentionally or unintentionally wearing them while bathing. Two people The Journal interviewed said they protected their AirPods with a shower cap.

May you have the level of joy of this parrot at the veterinarian. (Thanks to my colleague Astead Herndon for sharing this one.)


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