(Bloomberg) — The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is investigating whether Facebook Inc. violated antitrust laws in a broad sphere of its business – social media, digital advertising and mobile applications.
Facebook detailed the agency’s wide-ranging probe into the company’s business in a regulatory filing Thursday, a day after inking a $5 billion settlement over privacy violations.
The commission has already contacted third parties that could aid in the investigation as it tries to understand competitive dynamics, said a person familiar with the investigation who asked not to be named because the inquiry is confidential. Facebook said it was alerted to the investigation in June.
“The result of such investigations or inquiries could subject us to substantial monetary remedies and costs, require us to change our business practices, divert resources and the attention of management from our business, or subject us to other remedies that adversely affect our business,” Facebook said.
The new inquiry underscores that FTC Chairman Joe Simons is making good on a promise to scrutinize dominant tech companies. In February, he set up a task force to investigate potentially anti-competitive conduct in the industry and look at past mergers to determine if they should be unwound.
The FTC confirmed the investigation, but declined to comment further. Facebook didn’t provide any details about the probe.
To open the probe against the company, the FTC would need to have credible concerns that Facebook is harming competition, either through an acquisition or a restrictive business arrangement, said Barbara Sicalides, an antitrust lawyer at Pepper Hamilton LLP.
“Somebody has to have raised with them actual conduct that would fall within the realm of antitrust harm, which is limiting innovation, raising prices, or restricting output,” Sicalides said. “They could have restraints that limit people’s access, like vendors or other people’s access.”
A University of Chicago report earlier this year on competition in digital markets found large tech platforms have taken steps to block competition from potential rivals. As an example, it noted that Facebook cut off video service Vine’s access to a Facebook tool that let Vine users connect to Facebook friends.
“Modern platforms have an incentive to regularly thwart companies that compete with them for user demand,” the authors wrote. They can use technology to prevent “attractive content from establishing a relationship with the user and thereby possibly entering as a competitor.”
Facebook critics, including co-founder Chris Hughes, have called for antitrust enforcers to break up the company, arguing it shouldn’t have been allowed to buy Instagram and the WhatsApp messaging service. Both deals were approved by the agency when they were announced, and persuading a court to undo them would be a steep challenge, according to antitrust experts.
The FTC will probably investigate whether the Instagram deal violated antitrust law by harming competition, Cowen & Co. analyst Paul Gallant said in a note Thursday. The agency reviewed and cleared the acquisition in 2012, finding there was no antitrust violation. That doesn’t prohibit the commission from investigating again.
“This is not an easy case to make, but the FTC has infrequently undone previously-approved mergers (albeit much smaller than Facebook-Instagram),” Gallant said.
When Facebook got approval to acquire the photo-sharing app, it had a mere 80 million registered users, compared with Facebook’s 950 million active users. Facebook, at the time, had lost almost half its value since its IPO earlier that year amid investor concerns about whether it could make money from the mobile version of its service. Now Facebook has 2.4 billion monthly active users, and Instagram has more than 1 billion.
It was previously known that the FTC had taken early steps to determine whether Facebook’s business violated antitrust laws, but the disclosure marked the first time the company has confirmed a formal investigation. The move came after the FTC and Department of Justice divvied up the biggest tech companies for antitrust purposes, with Facebook and Amazon.com Inc. going to the FTC, and the Justice Department getting Apple Inc., No. 2 in Internet Retailers Top 500, and Alphabet Inc.’s Google (No. 10).