FTC launches an antitrust probe into Microsoft's deal with Inflection AI

The agency wants to know if Microsoft deliberately dodged antitrust review.

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Microsoft is under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission over its deal with Inflection AI, according to The Wall Street Journal. Back in March, the company hired almost all of Inflection AI's employees, including founders Karén Simonyan and Mustafa Suleyman, who was also a DeepMind cofounder. In addition, Microsoft paid Inflection AI $650 million to license its artificial intelligence technology. Now, the FTC wants to know whether the companies deliberately structured the deal to avoid being the subject of regulatory antitrust review.

As The Journal notes, companies are required to report any acquisition that's valued at $119 million or more to federal antitrust agencies. The FTC or the Justice Department could then investigate whether the deal stifles competition in the industry and then sue to block the merger or the investment that it deems to be anti-competitive. When companies want to hire all the talent in another firm, they typically buy the other out in an "acquihire." But Microsoft didn't buy Inflection, which denied that the bigger company has any power over it. Ted Shelton, its new COO, told the publication that it still operates as an independent company under new leadership.

The FTC has already sent out subpoenas to both Microsoft and Inflection, asking for relevant documents over the past two years. If it does determine that the companies entered into an agreement in a way that would give Microsoft control over the other while dodging regulatory review, then Microsoft could be fined, and the transaction could be suspended pending a more in-depth investigation.

Microsoft provided Engadget with the following statement: "Our agreements with Inflection gave us the opportunity to recruit individuals at Inflection AI and build a team capable of accelerating Microsoft Copilot, while enabling Inflection to continue pursuing its independent business and ambition as an AI studio. We take our legal obligations to report transactions under the HSR Act seriously and are confident that we have complied with those obligations."

US federal agencies have been cracking down on monopolistic practices by the world's largest tech companies over the past few years. To be even more efficient in conducting antitrust investigations involving the current biggest players in artificial intelligence, the agencies have also just struck a deal on how they're dividing their responsibilities. The Justice Department will take the lead in investigations involving NVIDIA, while the FTC will take charge of antitrust probes involving Microsoft and OpenAI.

Update, June 6 2024, 11:46AM ET: This story has been updated to include a statement from Microsoft.

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