As U.S. regulators unfurl plans to probe the business practices of tech giants, there's a pretty long list of activities that they could scrutinize.
On Thursday afternoon, the DOJ 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 agency added its review will "consider the widespread concerns that consumers, businesses, and entrepreneurs have expressed about search, social media, and some retail services online."
The move comes five months after the FTC set up a task force focused on "monitoring competition in U.S. technology markets, investigating any potential anticompetitive conduct in those markets, and taking enforcement actions when warranted." The FTC has reportedly been granted regulatory oversight for Facebook (FB) , which was just hit with a $5 billion FTC fine, and Amazon.com (AMZN) . The DOJ reportedly has oversight for Alphabet/Google (GOOGL) and Apple (AAPL) .
For now, the odds still appear against either the DOJ or the FTC pursuing full-blown breakups of the tech giants -- particularly since each agency would have to convince federal courts to look at things their way. But although some of these moves could also be challenged in the courts, it is increasingly likely that these agencies will try to pursue "remedies" for a number of business practices in markets where one or more tech giants has obtained a dominant position.
Here are some specific activities that the DOJ and/or the FTC could probe:
1. Services Bundling
Both U.S. and EU regulators have been scrutinizing Google for a while over its required bundling of its Search app, Google Chrome and other apps and services with its version of Android. Last year, the EU levied a $5 billion fine over Google's bundling practices that's currently being appealed. In addition, according to a recent Recode report, Amazon's Prime bundling activities are among those that the FTC is probing.
Google has defended its Android bundling policies by noting that Android is provided for free, and that it relies on bundled apps and services to monetize the OS. Amazon could defend itself against criticism of Prime's bundling of digital content services by pointing to the numerous successful rival content services that exist.
2. Vertical Search Integration
Google's integration of content from services such as Google Shopping, Google Travel, Google Maps and Google News with Google Search has long drawn attention from regulators and complaints from rivals. In June, The Wall Street Journal reported that many of these rivals were "readying documents and data in anticipation of meetings with the Justice Department."
Naturally, Google has defended itself against complaints by arguing that integrating content from non-search services enhances the value of Google Search.
3. Retail Marketplace Policies
The EU recently announced that it's probing Amazon's potential use of marketplace sales data to strengthen a direct e-commerce business that competes against its marketplace sellers, and the FTC is reportedly probing this practice as well. In addition, the FTC is reportedly looking into the pricing of Amazon's fulfillment services -- specifically, the higher prices charged for orders placed on third-party websites and marketplaces.
4. Ad Platform Policies
Though the companies have taken some steps to address such complaints, Google and Facebook still get some criticism for advertisers over how their ad platforms can function as "black boxes" that provide ad buyers with limited info about who an ad is shown to or what content it's run against. And -- as a recent Bloomberg story about YouTube's critics highlights -- third-party ad tech firms have complained about limited access to ad inventory on Google and Facebook's platforms.
5. Social Graph Access
Facebook has long leveraged the massive social graphs possessed by its services -- that is, the data they have on the connections between users of the services -- to help grow its various offerings. For example, the company can use a list of a user's Facebook friends to recommend the user follow these friends' Instagram accounts after he or she signs up for Instagram. Rivals have complained that Facebook's access to such data (and their lack of access to it) gives it a leg up.
6. The Cloning of Rival Services
Needless to say, this is an area where Facebook could be subject to scrutiny, given its past copying of Snapchat Stories and the apparent impact on Snap's (SNAP) user growth. Facebook has defended itself by noting that software ideas (as opposed to actual code) aren't protected by copyright law.
7. App Store Fees
The fees charged by Apple and Google for transactions going through their respective mobile app stores have drawn the ire of Netflix (NFLX) , Spotify (SPOT) , Match Group (MTCH) and many others. Recurring fees charged for digital content subscriptions have gotten a lot of specific attention.
Apple and Google have defended their app store policies by highlighting the costs borne by their app stores in areas such as infrastructure expenses, payment-processing fees and investments in weeding out apps that violate their content, security and/or privacy policies.
8. Acquisitions of Rivals
Regulators could take a close look at deals such as Facebook's purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp, and Google's purchase of mapping rivals, for their long-term effect on competition. Though it's unlikely that regulators will try to undo such deals given how much time has elapsed since they closed, and how the acquired companies' services have been integrated with those of their acquirers, they could be less willing to sign off on such acquisitions going forward.