- The Washington Times
Monday, April 18, 2022

Federal investigators are digging into game developer Activision Blizzard, which Microsoft has made pivotal to its app store business plans.

Microsoft announced its intent earlier this year to acquire Activision Blizzard for an estimated $68.7 billion, and the tech behemoth named the game developer in Microsoft’s new vision for its app store business.

Activision Blizzard personnel’s actions ahead of that public announcement have attracted the Biden administration’s attention. 

The Justice Department and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s interest in Activision Blizzard involves an apparent insider trading probe, according to a regulatory filing by Activision Blizzard on Friday. 

Activision Blizzard received a voluntary request for information from the SEC and a grand jury subpoena from the DOJ, both of which appear to relate to their respective investigations into trading by third parties — including persons known to Activision Blizzard’s CEO — in securities prior to the announcement of the proposed transaction,” said Activision Blizzard’s regulatory filing. “Activision Blizzard has informed these authorities that it intends to be fully cooperative with these investigations.”

Alongside the Justice Department and SEC, a trio of Democratic senators have urged the Federal Trade Commission to scrutinize Activision Blizzard as well. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Cory A. Booker of New Jersey wrote to FTC Chair Lina Khan last month and urged her to dig into the proposed acquisition. 

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The Democratic senators alleged that the proposed acquisition had “already hurt workers at Activision Blizzard in their fight for a stable job and a safe working environment.” 

Microsoft has said its proposed acquisition of Activision Blizzard is expected to close in fiscal 2023.

Microsoft declined to comment on Monday. Previously, Microsoft published its vision for its app store business involving Activision Blizzard in an effort to neutralize regulatory scrutiny. Microsoft President Brad Smith wrote on the company’s blog in March that its “Open App Store Principles” were developed as it started seeking regulatory approval around the world for its Activision Blizzard deal. 

“Our vision is to enable gamers to play any game on any device anywhere, including by streaming from the cloud,” Mr. Smith said at the time. “App stores on the most relevant and popular everyday devices like mobile phones; PCs, including Windows PCs; and, in time, the cloud, are important to realizing this vision.”

If the actions of the Justice Department, SEC, and FTC do not affect Microsoft’s ability to accomplish its app store goals, then Congress and Microsoft’s big tech competitors may still have something to say. 

Antitrust bills that would restrict large tech companies from preferencing their own products and place restrictions on certain app stores are under review in Congress. The Senate Judiciary Committee has advanced two antitrust proposals tackling these issues and the bills now await final consideration by the full senate. 

Microsoft’s principles outlined by Mr. Smith addressed issues involving self-preferencing, data, and privacy and Microsoft branded the principles as “adapting ahead of regulation.” Mr. Smith said in the March blog post that “too much friction” exists between creators and gamers and that app store policies held responsibility for the tension. 

Such regulation may be headed for large tech companies operating app stores regardless of their future plans. Apple and Google have fought against American antitrust proposals aimed at diminishing their power. 

Last week, Apple CEO Tim Cook bashed federal antitrust efforts to lessen his App Store’s dominance in the e-commerce realm, citing security concerns that would make iPhone users vulnerable to cyberattackers.

• Ryan Lovelace can be reached at rlovelace@washingtontimes.com.

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