Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google have become monopolies that need to be reined in through regulation or possibly even by breaking them up, according to a 449-page staff report released Tuesday by the Antitrust Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee.

“Although these firms have delivered clear benefits to society, the dominance of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google has come at a price," the report reads. It says the subcommittee's hearings "produced significant evidence that these firms wield their dominance in ways that erode entrepreneurship, degrade Americans' privacy online, and undermine the vibrancy of a free and diverse press. The result is less innovation, fewer choices for consumers, and a weakened democracy." 

The conclusions are the result of a year-long bipartisan investigation in which staffers collected more than a million documents and conducted interviews with more than 240 former employees and experts. 

Consumers already view the power of the biggest tech companies with concern, according to a nationally representative Consumer Reports survey conducted in July and cited in the congressional report. The survey found that 6 in 10 Americans favor stronger government action—including new laws, regulations, and enforcement actions—to discipline platforms and reduce harmful conduct.

"Americans are increasingly concerned about the negative impacts that a handful of giant internet platforms are having in so many important aspects of their daily lives," says George Slover, a CR senior policy counsel who helped design the survey. "When there's no competition, consumers only have two choices: Take it or leave it. In a whole number of areas, from online search to social media to getting apps for your phone, consumers' choices are being unfairly restricted."

Consumer Reports sent two letters to the subcomittee. One, submitted in April (PDF), was cited in the report, and said that consumers are "now facing an entirely new breed of concentrated market power." In a letter last week (PDF), CR provided our survey results, which were noted in the report.

The companies each denied that they practice monopolistic behaviors. 

"We compete with a wide variety of services with millions, even billions, of people using them," a Facebook spokesperson said in an email to Consumer Reports. "Acquisitions are part of every industry, and just one way we innovate new technologies to deliver more value to people." 

In a post on its website, Amazon called retailing "extraordinarily competitive" and labeled the report as "fringe notions on antitrust that would destroy small businesses and hurt consumers."

Apple, in a statement emailed to CR, said, "We vehemently disagree with the conclusions reached in this staff report with respect to Apple. Our company does not have a dominant market share in any category where we do business."

"We compete fairly in a fast-moving and highly competitive industry," Google wrote in a statement to CR. "We disagree with today's reports, which feature outdated and inaccurate allegations from commercial rivals about search and other services."

The subcommittee's report also met resistance from some Republican members, which could hamper the chance its recommendations advance. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who is on the Judiciary Committee, said the report "advances radical proposals that would refashion antitrust law in the vision of the far left."

Here's a closer look at what's in the antitrust subcommittee's report.

What Did the Report Find?

The report compared the Big Tech platforms to oil barons and railroad tycoons of the past, concluding that they not only control access to crucial markets but also abuse that power to expand their dominance.

“In our increasingly connected world, Big Tech companies are now the gatekeepers,” says Slover. “The investigation uncovered evidence that the platforms use that power to enrich themselves in a way that’s anticompetitive.”

Facebook, for example, used its platform tools to identify apps with rapidly expanding audiences, the report says, then acquired Instagram and WhatsApp before they could grow to pose a real threat to its business.

A former Amazon employee told the investigators that the online retail giant used its market data to identify hot-selling products from third-party merchants on its platform, develop copycat versions, then use those products to displace the originals.

As one example of how Google leverages its multiple businesses to retain its top spot in search, the report says that Google imposed "restrictive contractual terms" that essentially required phone manufacturers using the Android operating system to preinstall both Google Search and the Chrome browser.

And, because Apple holds "monopoly power" over software distribution on iOS devices, the report says, it generates "supra-normal profits" from items sold in its App Store.

What Big Changes Were Proposed?

"This is an urgent problem, and there are a variety of ways to fix it," Slover says—starting with reinvigorating the enforcement of existing statutes, some of which date back a century or more.

The report opens the door to separating parts of major tech companies, either by literally forcing them to be owned separately or by enforcing strong rules about how they can operate online.

The report cites various kinds of “structural separations" being proposed by experts but points out that many of them aren't new ideas. It explains 19th century rules that barred railroads from also becoming coal companies, because if they owned both the pipeline (the rails) and the content (the coal), no other coal company would be able to stay afloat. That situation could be seen as similar to the way Amazon is both a conduit for selling products and a company that markets its own products on that conduit. 

The report also suggests considering laws to prohibit companies from favoring their own products over others—treating all content, services, or products equally on their platforms. That could mean a Google app wouldn’t automatically appear at the top of a list of apps in the Google Play Store. And the report talks about clamping down on proprietary systems that tend to lock consumers into one company’s services.

You can, for instance, send an email to anyone, no matter what kind of computer or browser either of you use. But that's not the case with data accumulated on an online platform. Only recently has Facebook made it easy to transfer photos from that platform to Google or Dropbox. 

How Could the Proposals Work?

One way to start reining in tech giants could be to block some of the acquisitions that let them expand rapidly. "Although the dominant platforms collectively engaged in several hundred mergers and acquisitions between 2000-2019, antitrust enforcers did not block a single one of these transactions,” the report says. 

Those acquisitions included consumer brands such as Eero, Ring, and Instagram, along with many companies that are critical in cloud computing, advertising analytics, artificial intelligence, and other critical parts of the digital economy. One way to slow down the flood of acquisitions, Slover says, would be to shift the burden of proof when they are being considered.

"Instead of the antitrust enforcers having to prove that a deal would harm competition, mergers between companies of a certain size could be legally presumed to be anticompetitive," he says. "And then it would be incumbent upon the companies to prove that the merger wouldn't harm competition." 

The report also faults the courts for decisions narrowing the scope of antitrust laws, making it harder to win antitrust cases, and faults regulators for failing to enforce a number of laws meant to ensure competition vigorously enough. As one example, it notes that the antitrust agencies haven't recently even tried to enforce the Robinson-Patman Act, "which Congress passed in order to limit the power of large chain retailers to extract concessions from independent suppliers.”

Are any of these reforms realistic? Slover thinks the report provides a strong basis for at least some of the proposals, although everyone should expect "push-back from the four firms."

Editor's Note: This article has been updated with additional information about Consumer Reports' contribution to the subcommittee's report.