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House antitrust chair asks FTC to explore bold enforcement against Facebook

The chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees antitrust issues called on the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate Facebook Inc. over potential violation of antitrust laws.

In a March 19 op-ed in The New York Times, Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., who chairs the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law, called for the FTC to look into a range of bold enforcement tactics against the company, citing what he believes to be a pattern of abusive privacy practices and anticompetitive behavior at the company. He urged the agency to explore the possibility of "removing members of the company's board, or even top executives, along with other changes to the company's business model to address dysfunction at the top."

The agency, he says, is facing a credibility crisis and has not taken up a major monopoly case since it investigated Microsoft Corp. in the 1990s.

"How the commission chooses to respond to Facebook's repeated abuses will determine whether it is willing or able to promote competition and protect consumers," wrote Cicilline. "If the commission does conclude that Facebook has violated the consent order, how it fixes this problem through a legal remedy will be a test of its effectiveness."

Cicilline also said Facebook's recent announcement of its plan to merge the messaging infrastructure of WhatsApp Inc., Instagram Inc. and Facebook Messenger furthered the company's monopoly power. However, Makan Delrahim, assistant attorney general for the antitrust division at the U.S. Department of Justice, said in January that the integration would not automatically trigger a formal antitrust review, but he did acknowledge it could get the attention of antitrust officials.

The FTC is already investigating Facebook for possibly violating a 2011 consent order on privacy practices. Facebook is reportedly facing a multibillion-dollar fine from the agency.

Cicilline is not alone in Congress calling for more regulatory scrutiny of the company.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said on March 19 that Facebook was an "extremely creepy company," and that he is hopeful he will see FTC enforcement activity against Facebook soon.

The comments from the two lawmakers come on the heels of a recent proposal from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., which detailed how she would break up big tech companies such as Amazon.com Inc., Facebook, and Alphabet Inc.'s Google LLC if she is elected president.

Her plan also entails appointing regulators committed to reversing anti-competitive tech mergers and specifically listed Facebook's acquisition of Instagram as one that she would target.

For its part, Facebook has said it would back comprehensive federal privacy regulation in the U.S., and CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently announced a plan to shift the company towards becoming a "privacy-focused" platform. The company also reportedly defended its proposal to integrate the messaging infrastructure of its messaging apps by calling it a move to boost encryption and enhance privacy.WhatsApp Inc.