Published 6:32 PM EDT Sep 25, 2018
SAN FRANCISCO -- U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with a group of state law enforcement officials Tuesday to explore how to protect consumers and businesses from technology's most powerful companies, signaling a new era of tough scrutiny for the industry.
The Justice Department said the conversation focused on consumer protection and data privacy as "areas of consensus." The White House is considering a draft executive order that would direct federal antitrust and law enforcement agencies to open probes into the practices of technology companies.
Among the issues discussed were the growth and size of tech companies and their collection and handling of people's personal information and how state attorneys general could work together, according to three officials from 13 states and Washington, D.C. who attended the meeting in person or by phone. The attorneys general said they expect more discussions on how state and federal authorities could tackle these issues.
"The fact that there seems to be a more general consensus among states as well as clearly interest from the federal government probably does increase the likelihood of more activity from a regulatory oversight and investigative perspective from state AGs and perhaps from the federal government," Washington D.C.'s attorney general Karl Racine told USA TODAY.
The closed-door meeting came amid claims from President Donald Trump and other Republicans that major companies such as Alphabet's Google and Facebook suppress and censor conservative views that run counter to the left-leaning politics of Silicon Valley.
Sessions turns talk to bias charges
When the Justice Department announced the meeting earlier this month, it said it would discuss whether companies such as Alphabet's Google and Facebook were harming competition and "intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas."
Sessions opened Tuesday's meeting, which also included deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, by raising the issue of alleged ideological bias and sought twice to bring the conversation back to that topic of conservatives being suppressed or censored online, three state attorneys general told USA TODAY.
"It seemed to me purpose of meeting was to push the Trump administration idea that they are going to somehow drive political bias out of social media. I think that's stifling political speech and it's a dangerous business, and I said so in the meeting," Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh told USA TODAY. "I asked if they had any evidence that the algorithms showed political bias and I asked what the theory was under antitrust law dealing with so called bias. Those questions were not answered."
State officials said they redirected the discussion to antitrust and privacy concerns. States have the authority to investigate anti-competitive conduct and deceptive practices by companies. It's unclear if they can regulate data handling under antitrust law. Topping the agenda: how companies collect users' private data and what they do with it.
"Their power is unsurpassed in history," Mississippi's attorney general Jim Hood told USA Today.
Hood, who says he suggested a formal partnership between the state attorneys general and the federal government to pursue legal action against tech companies, drew parallels to previous interventions by the government such as the dominance of Standard Oil, the Justice Department's break-up of AT&T's telephone monopoly and the antitrust actions against Microsoft.
"We will get back together by telephone and see where go from here in the next six weeks ago," said Hood, one of Google's most outspoken critics who has gone after the company on ads for prescription drugs and other issues. "It will take some time, probably decades of litigation, but we have to change their behavior particularly on privacy."
Utah's attorney general Sean Reyes said the meeting was "part of a critical, ongoing dialogue on protecting consumers and competition in the technology sector without unnecessarily burdening innovation or investment."
"We shared ideas and concerns about the impact of dominant market players on competition and how they may be unfairly leveraging their position for competitive advantage," Reyes said in a statement. "We agreed that at the federal and state level, we are both seeking robust protection of consumers and markets through responsible regulation and disciplined enforcement."
The meeting was further evidence of the dramatic shift in fortunes for big tech in Washington. Criticism of their business practices has intensified with revelations that they failed to protect people's personal information and did too little to combat misinformation online during the 2016 presidential election.
"Certainly that this meeting occurred and that the Attorney General of the United States invited AGs to really focus on the large platforms and tech companies and the manner in which they collect gather and utilize data, I think is significant," Racine said.
Some attorneys general are already pursuing big tech companies on their own.
Washington State’s attorney general, Bob Ferguson, is suing Facebook and Google, claiming they are not complying with state transparency laws for political advertising.
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, who’s running for U.S. Senate on the Republican ticket, launched an antitrust investigation into whether Google manipulates search results to boost its own products and scrapes information from its rivals without permission.