The FTC should take seriously the threats to competition posed by online platform monopolies. Firms like Amazon, Facebook, Google and Uber have emerged as the railroads of the Internet economy, connecting buyers and sellers in a central marketplace. While often providing great ease and convenience for consumers, these companies can also use their market power to squeeze or disadvantage the sellers and suppliers that depend on them—much as the railroads of yore used their power over manufacturers and farmers to pick winners and losers.
Unlike railroads, however, today’s online platforms also collect reams of information that help them entrench their existing dominance and gain advantage in new lines of business. But the FTC has yet to address directly the fact that concentrated control over data has deep implications for competition. In the one major instance where the agency did investigate a platform monopoly—Google—FTC legal staff advised filing a lawsuit on three counts, but the agency’s leadership opted to settle with a voluntary agreement. Under the settlement, Google consented to stop restricting advertisers’ ability to use rival platforms and to not block competitors from using patents essential to key technologies. Since the FTC closed its investigation, researchers have found that Google ties its content to its search results in ways that harm the public—one of the very practices that FTC had scrutinized and decided posed no problems.