Big Technology

The Political Quirk That Made Facebook Vulnerable to a Robust Antitrust Case

Without political pressure, the FTC waited to rally state attorneys general in a broad, bipartisan case against Facebook’s anticompetitive behavior

Alex Kantrowitz
Published in
4 min readDec 9, 2020
Image: NurPhoto/Getty Images

Today, the Federal Trade Commission sued Facebook for a slew of antitrust violations, targeting the way the company eliminated its top competitors via the acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp. More than 40 state attorneys general filed a lawsuit mirroring the FTC’s, displaying broad, bipartisan coordination rare in an age of polarized, dysfunctional government.

By acting together, the state attorneys general will make Facebook’s life difficult, bringing a more robust lawsuit than the Department of Justice’s case against Google. There, only 11 state AGs joined, all of them Republican, giving Google an opportunity to play them off their counterparts. Facebook will have no such luck.

Luck is indeed the word. Facebook’s tougher circumstances aren’t due to more egregious behavior, but rather a political quirk. Here’s how it happened.

In June 2019, the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission split responsibility for overseeing the tech giants. Each would explore antitrust charges against two companies. The DOJ took Google and Apple. The FTC got Facebook and Amazon.

The two agencies worked on their cases for months, but as the November election neared, the Trump administration wanted action and began to press. And the pressure worked at the Department of Justice.

At the DOJ this fall, Attorney General William Barr’s team worked on an antitrust case against Google with attorneys general from “nearly every state” when the administration’s pressure intensified. The DOJ is part of the executive branch, and Barr serves at the pleasure of the president. So he pushed to get the case out the door.

Barr and the state AGs were on separate timelines though. Some AGs weren’t motivated by the election and wanted time to investigate further. Others might have been reticent to help Trump — or give that appearance — ahead of the vote. But Barr had a job to do. So…



Alex Kantrowitz

Veteran journalist covering Big Tech and society. Subscribe to my newsletter here: