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The head of the US antitrust office says earlier enforcement could have heralded a new investigation into current digital giants

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top U.S. antitrust enforcer said on Tuesday that examining enforcement actions against Standard Oil and AT&T decades ago could help lay the groundwork for looking into possible anticompetitive behavior at today’s tech giants such as Google and Facebook owned by Alphabet.

The Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission, which enforce U.S. antitrust laws, have split potential investigations into the four companies, with Google and Apple under investigation by the Justice Department and the FTC looking at Amazon.com Inc and Facebook.

Makan Delrahim, deputy attorney general, noted in a video address at a conference in Israel that the Justice Department has fought giant corporations in court before and won.

Delrahim pointed to previous major antitrust victories, such as the breakup of Standard Oil early last century and AT&T agreeing to disband in 1982.

Delrahim argued that, like today’s technology giants, Standard Oil has cutting-edge technology and has come of age in a time of rapid technological change. “Another important parallel for modern observers is that consumers actually enjoyed lower prices during the height of Standard Oil’s dominance,” he said.

Delrahim said AT&T’s telephone networks were an early example of the “network effect” because the early refusal to connect independent companies to long-distance lines harmed those companies.

Like digital giants, Delrahim argued, AT&T defended itself by claiming it offered better prices, performance and innovation.

He also argued that the Justice Department’s fight with Microsoft Corp, which began in 1998 over allegations that it used anticompetitive methods to combat competition from the Netscape web browser, had changed the digital economy.

“The government’s successful monopolization case against Microsoft could have paved the way for companies like Google, Yahoo and Apple to enter the market with their own desktop and mobile products,” Delrahim said.

He said that when looking for antitrust violations, the department looks for higher prices, lower quality, including loss of privacy and collusion. Delrahim said his division will also look for cases of exclusive commercial arrangements intended to harm competing companies.

He also noted the need to stop giant companies from getting bigger through mergers.

“Acquisitions of nascent competitors may be pro-competitive in some cases and anti-competitive in others,” he said. “I will pay attention to the possibility of harm if the purpose and effect of the acquisition is to block potential competitors, protect a monopoly or otherwise harm competition.”

(Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Dan Grebler)