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Justice Department Meeting Focuses on Privacy and Antitrust Issues of Big Tech

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ meeting with more than a dozen state officials focused largely on the privacy, data collection, and antitrust issues of tech companies, despite earlier indications that the gathering would address whether platforms were stifling political voices.

The meeting on Tuesday, which lasted about an hour, was the latest example of the increasing scrutiny that Google, Facebook, and Amazon are facing from federal and state officials, and the possibility that it will lead to new regulation or litigation.

The attorneys general did not take any kind of concrete steps, like launching official investigations of tech giants, but the gathering was substantive enough to warrant follow-up conversations, according to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who was in D.C. for the meeting.

“No conclusions were reached, but clearly there was a conversation about what role everyone can play,” Becerra told reporters. “I don’t think that it is a surprise to anybody that everyone believes that to the degree that there will be action taken under our laws, whatever that action might look like, that the federal government will be an important player in that.”

The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission have been under some pressure to examine the market dominance of tech platforms like Amazon and Google.

Becerra said the notion that some tech giants may need to be broken up, as happened to Standard Oil and AT&T in landmark antitrust actions, “was raised as part of a conversation about how you deal with the growth and size of companies,” Becerra said. “But I don’t think that there was a specific notion that simply dealing with size will get you the answer that you need.”

The Federal Trade Commission is conducting a series of hearings on tech platforms, focusing on an array of issues that include privacy and competition, while top executives from Facebook and Twitter have recently testified before congressional committees.

The Tuesday meeting included nine state attorneys general and five senior deputies from other states. Sessions was joined by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, the department’s antitrust chief, along with other senior staff.

“The discussion principally focused on consumer protection and data privacy issues, and the bipartisan group of attendees sought to identify areas of consensus,” the DOJ said in a statement.

The Justice Department initially announced earlier this month that it was convening the meeting of state attorneys general “to discuss a growing concern that these companies may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms.”

President Donald Trump complained in a tweet last month that “Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can & cannot see.” He said it was a “very serious situation” and that it “will be addressed!”

Yet James Hood, the attorney general of Mississippi, who also was present for the meeting, said about “99%” of it focused on issues of privacy and antitrust, not political bias.

“The AGs were unanimous that we wanted to focus on things that were in our statutory authority,” Hood said.

He broached the idea of a “working group” of state officials that could share information as they look into antitrust and privacy issues, given the labor intensive nature of any investigation. He noted that a European Union investigation included conducting 1.7 billion searches on Google to compare results.

Hood said the attorneys general will put together a joint letter and send suggestions on how to proceed to the Justice Department.

“I am encouraged by it,” Hood said of the meeting.

Becerra also said conversations could resume in November, when there is a meeting scheduled of the National Association of Attorneys General.

Tuesday’s meeting, he said, also delved into how antitrust laws apply to “this new dynamic of this internet world and how it fits in with what is going on around the world as well.”

“It is still a puzzle,” Becerra said. “But everyone recognizes that anytime you start an initiative in the antitrust field, it is a bear.”

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