A meeting of the country’s top federal and state law enforcement officials on Tuesday could presage sweeping new investigations of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and their tech industry peers, stemming from lingering frustrations that these companies are too big, fail to safeguard users’ private data and don’t cooperate with legal demands.
The gathering at the Justice Department had been designed to focus on social media platforms and the ways in which they moderate content online, following complaints from President Trump and other top Republicans that Silicon Valley companies deliberately seek to silence conservative users and views online.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions opened the meeting by raising questions of possible ideological bias among the tech companies and sought to bring the conversation back to that topic at least twice more, according to D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine.
But the discussion proved far more wide-ranging, as attorneys general from eight states and the District — and officials from five others — steered the conversation toward the privacy practices of Silicon Valley. Those in the meeting did not zero in on specific business tactics, but they did cover such issues as how companies collect user data and what they do with it once the information is in their hands.
“We were unanimous. Our focus is going to be on antitrust and privacy. That’s where our laws are,” Jim Hood, Mississippi’s attorney general, said in an interview.
Most in the meeting agreed that the Justice Department would probably play a role in any legal action against the tech industry. Still, much of the group’s momentum now appears to be driven by an emerging multistate inquiry — not the Justice Department — with Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson expected to coordinate the attorneys general’s conversation.
“[The] AGs are really focused on understanding more as to what consumers are truly consenting to and what they may not know is going on with their data,” Racine said in an interview.
For months, tech giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter have weathered brutal criticism in the nation’s capital for their business practices — from the ways they safeguard their data to their preparedness to combat misinformation online ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. As these companies have faced pressure to actively monitor the content on their platforms, however, they’ve opened themselves up to new political attacks from Republicans who contend that Silicon Valley’s policies result in the silencing of conservatives. The criticisms have even come from the White House, where Trump most recently accused Google of producing “rigged” search results — and his administration has floated regulating the industry in response.
Announcing the gathering earlier this month, the Justice Department said it hoped to convene “a meeting with a number of state attorneys general this month to discuss a growing concern that these companies may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms.”
On Tuesday, though, the department said that “discussion principally focused on consumer protection and data privacy issues, and the bipartisan group of attendees sought to identify areas of consensus.” A spokesman at the agency declined to provide further detail.
Exiting the discussions, Hood, for example, floated the possibility of a “working group going forward to look at the anti-competitive aspects” of the tech industry. The formal partnership between attorneys general and the federal government would allow them to have “information sharing on separate litigations we have ongoing,” he said.
But attorneys general from both parties seemed reluctant to use antitrust law to address allegations of online bias. Hood, for one, said there are issues with the way tech companies moderate their platforms. “We AGs don’t want to wade off into that battle,” he said.
Another attorney general — Democrat Brian E. Frosh of Maryland — said there was little basis for using antitrust law to prosecute allegations of ideological bias.
Whether state and federal officials have the legal tools under antitrust law to regulate the tech industry’s data practices was a major question for the group.
Citing previous cases in which the government intervened against anti-competitive behavior, the officials considered the dominance of Standard Oil, the Justice Department’s breakup of AT&T’s telephone monopoly and the quest to take apart Microsoft.
Few in the meeting seemed ready to seriously discuss breaking up Silicon Valley’s most dominant players. But those cases represented “pivot points” in the nation’s history that could prove instructive to policymakers, said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
“All of those cases and situations inform you when it comes to a conversation about this new sector,” he told reporters Tuesday.
For other states, the issue was the tech industry’s relationship with law enforcement. That included talk about Apple and “how we in law enforcement depend on cellphones.” Hood said that Apple has “waved at us and didn’t use all their fingers” in its handling of encryption.
A number of tech companies, including Apple, Google and Twitter, are expected to testify Wednesday before the Senate Commerce Committee in a hearing on privacy safeguards.
More law enforcement officials could be drawn into the state and federal discussion over the coming months, particularly during a convention of state attorneys general that is scheduled for late November.
Sessions opened the meeting, which also included Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, by talking about “some of the antitrust issues and concerns, about how consolidated the information is,” Hood said.
Sessions returned to the question of ideological bias once in the middle of the session and once again toward the end, according to Racine. At one point, Sessions turned to the Justice Department’s antitrust chief, Makan Delrahim, who was also in attendance, for his perspective.
“The antitrust head, in turn, made it clear that his office and his resources were available for AGs to look at these technologies under an antitrust analysis,” Racine said.
The Justice Department called the gathering a “productive dialogue” in a statement Tuesday and pledged to review the results.