WASHINGTON — Federal regulators asked Wednesday for Facebook to be ordered to divest its Instagram and WhatsApp messaging services as the U.S. government and 48 states and districts, including Maine, accused the company of abusing its market power in social networking to crush smaller competitors.
The antitrust lawsuits were announced by the Federal Trade Commission and New York Attorney General Letitia James.
“It’s really critically important that we block this predatory acquisition of companies and that we restore confidence to the market,” James said during a press conference announcing the lawsuit.
In its lawsuit, the FTC is seeking the separation of the services from Facebook, saying Facebook has engaged in a “a systematic strategy” to eliminate its competition, including by purchasing smaller up-and-coming rivals like Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014. James echoed that in her press conference, saying Facebook “used its monopoly power to crush smaller rivals and snuff out competition, all at the expense of everyday users.”
Facebook is the world’s biggest social network, with 2.7 billion users and a company with a market value of nearly $800 billion, whose CEO Mark Zuckerberg is the world’s fifth-richest individual and the most public face of Big Tech swagger. Facebook did not have immediate comment.
James alleged Facebook had a practice of opening its site to third-party app developers, then abruptly cutting off developers that it saw as a threat. The lawsuit — which includes 46 states, Guam and the District of Columbia — accuses Facebook of anti-competitive conduct and using its market dominance to harvest consumer data and reap a fortune in advertising revenues.
“Free and fair competition is a bedrock principle of the American economy,” Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey said in a press release. “Consumers are negatively impacted when companies like Facebook illegally stifle competition, reduce privacy protections, and diminish the quality of services.”
James said the coalition worked collaboratively with the FTC but noted the attorneys general conducted their investigations separately. They are confident they will succeed, James said, pointing to previous break-up actions, such as AT&T, as possible precedent.
Facebook paid $1 billion for Instagram, bolstering the social networking platform’s portfolio a month before its stock went public. At the time, the photo-sharing app had about 30 million users and wasn’t producing any revenue. Zuckerberg vowed both companies would be run independently, but over the years the services have become increasingly integrated with users able to link accounts and share content across the platforms. Instagram now has more than 1 billion users worldwide. Facebook acquired WhatsApp, an encrypted messaging service, for $19 billion.
Facebook has started to integrate Instagram and WhatsApp, most recently by linking the apps’ chat functions with its Messenger service. Such integration could make it more difficult — if not impossible — to break off the companies.
Story by Marcy Gordon and Michael R. Sisak. AP journalist Barbara Ortutay contributed to this report from Oakland, California.