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Lawmakers Demand Records from Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple

Naomi Nix and Ben Brody

(Bloomberg) -- A House panel conducting a broad antitrust investigation of the technology sector is demanding that companies turn over a trove of internal records about their business practices as it ramps up scrutiny of the industry.

Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline, who is leading the House antitrust subcommittee’s inquiry into large internet companies, said it is sending letters Friday to Google parent Alphabet Inc., Amazon.com Inc., Facebook Inc. and Apple Inc. asking for detailed information about acquisitions, business practices, executive communications, previous probes and lawsuits.

The letters, which were addressed to the top executives of each company, mark the most aggressive demands by the House panel since June, when it began a bipartisan investigation into whether large tech platforms are harming competition.

“We made it clear when we launched this bipartisan investigation that we plan to get all the facts we need to diagnose the problems in the digital marketplace,” Cicilline said in a statement. “Today’s document requests are an important milestone in this investigation as we work to obtain the information that our members need to make this determination.”

The letters were also signed by the top Republican on the subcommittee, Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, as well as the top Democrat and the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, of which the antitrust panel is a part.

The requests come as the technology giants find themselves swamped by antitrust inquiries by the federal government as well as state attorneys general, which announced probes of Google and Facebook this week.

The lawmakers also requested executive communications about prior government probes and lawsuits and said they would not recognize attorney-client privilege as a reason for the companies to refuse to provide requested records.

The panel asked Facebook about its purchases of the WhatsApp chat platform and the Instagram photo app, which were both approved by federal antitrust regulators. They asked to see communications from Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, former general counsel Colin Stretch and policy chief Kevin Martin.

The committee wants to know whether Google is shutting out rivals on its platforms or imposing restrictions that could harm competition. It asked for discussions by executives about whether non-Google companies with competing ad technology can participate in Google ad auctions or place ads on YouTube. The lawmakers also asked for discussions about any agreements between Android and smartphone manufacturers that give Google exclusive rights to collect data from devices.

The lawmakers asked about 24 Google products and services, including its mobile operating system Android, Gmail, the Google Play store, YouTube and its mapping service Waze. The letter seeks information on executives’ discussions of major acquisitions including ad technology company DoubleClick, YouTube and Android.

Asked about the request, Google pointed to a Sept. 6 blog post by top lawyer Kent Walker, who said the company’s “services help people, create more choice, and support thousands of jobs and small businesses across the United States.”

The other companies didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

The panel asked for details about 12 of Apple’s products and services, including its App Store, Apple Watch, iPhone, Mac and Siri. It wants to see communications to and from Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook and 13 other executives about policies and decisions involving the company’s App Store, such as the algorithm that determines the search ranking of apps and whether to allow other app stores on the iPhone. They also requested records about Apple’s offer to replace ailing iPhone batteries.

The lawmakers’ request to Amazon focuses on the company’s online marketplace, including how it handles proprietary data of third-party sellers on its platform and how its product search algorithm works. They demand answers about Amazon’s 2018 deal to sell new Apple devices on its website, which has also attracted questions from the Federal Trade Commission.

The lawmakers seek information about acquisitions by Amazon, including audio book company Audible, upscale grocery store chain Whole Foods, and pharmacy delivery company PillPack.

The antitrust panel has already held a hearing on the effect of digital platforms such as Google and Facebook on the news industry, as well as a session on innovation and entrepreneurship in July that featured appearances by executives from Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon.

(Updates with Google response in 11th paragraph)

--With assistance from David McLaughlin.

To contact the reporters on this story: Naomi Nix in Washington at nnix1@bloomberg.net;Ben Brody in Washington, D.C. at btenerellabr@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sara Forden at sforden@bloomberg.net, Mark Niquette, Kathleen Hunter

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