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Communications of the ACM

Law and technology

What Role for Antitrust in Regulating Platforms?

Amazon, Google, and Facebook symbols, illustration

Credit: Axios

Google, Facebook, and Amazon stand accused of various tactics to thwart competition and protect their market position. The Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and others are investigating the platforms for possible antitrust violations. These developments call to mind the browser wars and Microsoft's legal battles in the 1990s and 2000s. They also raise an important question: What role does antitrust have to play this time around?

As I explain, antitrust law is highly relevant to some—but not all—of the critics' complaints. If Google uses customer contracts to weaken Bing, antitrust law can and should step in. Likewise if Facebook bought Instagram, back in 2012, to neutralize it as a competitive threat. More challenging are complaints about product design, such as a platform's arrangement of search results. Even further afield are concerns the platforms are copying their rivals' best ideas. If Amazon copies another seller's decision to market a particular product, no antitrust issue is raised, but copying combined with deception would raise serious concern.


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