- The Washington Times
Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Justice Department officials on Tuesday met with the top legal authorities in 14 states to discuss whether antitrust laws can be used to crack down on tech giants’ business practices and protect consumer privacy.

Billed as “a listening session,” the closed-door meeting was called by Attorney General Jeff Sessions initially to discuss claims that social media companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook are intentionally stifling conservative thought. But it morphed into a conversation about consumer privacy rights and possible anti-competitive business practices among the major Silicon Valley companies.

“The discussion principally focused on consumer protection and data privacy issues and the bipartisan group of attendees sought to identify areas of consensus,” the Justice Department said in a statement. “Many shared the view that it is essential for federal and state law enforcement authorities to work together to ensure that these challenges are addressed responsibly and effectively.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra attended the meeting. He described it as “an open, healthy conversation” in an interview with Bloomberg News.

“The conversation really focused on the issue of competition and the whole issue of antitrust and privacy,” he told the news outlet. “Many states are interested in making sure our consumers are as protected as possible when it comes to their personal information.”

Mr. Becerra said the meeting touched on how the government should deal with the size and growth of tech companies, including a discussion on efforts to break up businesses seen as monopolies, as Standard Oil and Microsoft were. But Mr. Becerra told Bloomberg he doesn’t expect the Justice Department to file a case or open an investigation.

“I don’t believe [the department] will move in this direction,” he said.

President Trump has been publicly blasting Google, Facebook and others, accusing them of an anti-conservative bias. Media reports last week said the president was weighing an executive order compelling federal agencies to open antitrust investigations into tech companies.

Last month, Mr. Trump said Twitter, Google and Facebook are “treading on very, very troubled territory,” although he offered no specifics on why or what actions he would take. In the past, Mr. Trump has accused the tech giants of rigging their search engines to highlight articles criticizing him.

“I think what Google and others are doing, if you look at what’s going on at Twitter, if you at what’s going on in Facebook, they better be careful, because you can’t do that to people,” the president said.

The Justice Department meeting was held one day before a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on technology companies’ privacy policies. Representatives from Google, Amazon and Apple are among those set to testify.

High-ranking Justice Department officials who attended the meeting included Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Acting Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio and Assistant Attorney General Mark Delrahim, who spoke earlier in the day at a global antitrust conference in Washington about the need to accelerate the antitrust review process.

“Delay is a form of uncertainty and risk, and we should seek to remove it from the merger review process whenever possible,” he said. Mr. Delrahim said antitrust reviews took an average of 10.8 months to resolve last year, a 65 percent increase from an average of 7.1 months in 2013.

“Nobody wins with unduly lengthy reviews, other than lawyers and expert economists perhaps,” he said.

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