DOJ official signals firm stance against 'killer acquisitions'


Nominee to be Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during her confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 9, 2021.

Joshua Roberts | Reuters

The Department of Justice will not shy away from enforcing antitrust laws against so-called “killer acquisitions,” where dominant firms buy start-ups before they can become competitive threats, says a top department official.

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, who oversees the agency’s Antitrust Division, spoke at the Georgetown Law Global Antitrust Enforcement Symposium Tuesday. There, she said acquisitions of nascent competitors “are one category of particularly concerning transactions because they undermine competition that can disrupt monopolies.”

President Biden’s leadership choices have already indicated a tough approach on alleged monopolies and illegal acquisitions. But this speech marks one of the first times Biden’s DOJ has publicly outlined its stance on antitrust enforcement.

Gupta pointed to the department’s case against Visa’s proposed acquisition of payments company Plaid as an example of the government’s work to halt transactions with nascent competitors. The two companies ultimately abandoned the merger after the government sought to block it.

“The department will not shy away from similar challenges in the future,” Gupta said, adding that the department should remain “careful not to discourage investment in new start-ups. But we should also remember that startups cannot thrive without a competitive economy.”

Gupta also called the department’s antitrust lawsuit against Google “a major priority.”

In addition, she said she welcomes lawmakers’ efforts to provide new tools to enforcers to go after illegal monopolies and transactions.

“The bottom line is that we will not stand by and watch dominant digital platforms thwart competition,” Gupta said.

“Digital markets may involve new technologies, but the tactics of these digital platforms are nothing new. Buying would-be rivals. Boxing out firms who won’t be bought. Leveraging a monopoly position in one market to grow a position in another. The Department of Justice has dealt with these tactics from the likes of Standard Oil and Microsoft. We will do so again whenever the facts and the law demand action to protect the economy, no matter how powerful the violator.”

Biden nominated tech critic Lina Khan to lead the Federal Trade Commission, and his nominee to lead the Antitrust Division, Jonathan Kanter, was a favorite among progressives seeking greater enforcement of antitrust laws. Kanter still awaits Senate confirmation, but he would report to Gupta if confirmed.

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