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Law Enforcement Officials Confront Tech Companies’ Power
Top Justice Department officials met with 14 state attorneys general on Tuesday to weigh whether they have the right tools to confront privacy and competition concerns surrounding Facebook, Google and other tech companies that have amassed extraordinary amounts of data about their consumers and advertising markets.
Americans increasingly recognize that tech companies wield tremendous power and deserve greater scrutiny, the law enforcement officials said, and they discussed whether traditional approaches to antitrust issues were still suitable for modern disputes over privacy and the tech business model.
Xavier Becerra, the attorney general of California, cautioned against comparisons to landmark antitrust cases. “Most would agree, this is not Standard Oil, this is not even Microsoft,” he said. But, he added, “all of those situations inform you.”
The Justice Department called the conversation productive, though no decisions were made or announced. The meeting, largely a forum for officials to share ideas, sharply contrasted with Monday’s chaos at the Justice Department over the confusion of whether Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, would leave the job.
He had told senior White House advisers that he was considering quitting after a New York Times article revealed that he had discussed secretly recording President Trump to expose the chaos inside the administration and invoking the 25th Amendment to remove the president from office. Mr. Rosenstein has denied the report.
He attended Tuesday’s meeting, sitting alongside Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the acting associate attorney general, Jesse Panuccio, the department’s No. 3 official. The head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, Makan Delrahim, and the acting head of the civil rights division, John M. Gore, also attended.
Three major issues were broached: the tech business model, which is based on accumulating consumer data; privacy; and user terms and conditions, according to people in the room.
Google came up more than other companies, according to a person in the room who was not authorized to publicly describe the discussion and spoke on the condition of anonymity. A few attorneys general expressed concern about Google’s ability to track, in a granular way, the everyday routines of people.
Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, was set to meet with lawmakers in Washington on Friday, including Republicans who plan to ask him about the company’s competitive practices; its work with countries accused of human rights abuses, like China and Russia; and whether its workers and search engine magnify biases.
“Google has a lot of questions to answer about reports of bias in its search results, violations of user privacy, anticompetitive behavior and business dealings with repressive regimes like China,” the House majority leader, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, said in a statement.
Technology companies mine consumer behavior online for data, which they then sell on an open marketplace much in the same way that a company might sell oil. A handful of large companies control and sell the vast majority of that data.
The conversation was originally billed by the Justice Department as a way to address free speech issues, as well as competitive concerns. Before it was announced, Mr. Trump, whose Twitter account is perhaps his core communications platform, amplified claims that tech and social media companies try to suppress conservative voices and opinions.
But the law enforcement officials touched only briefly on whether the companies were politically biased or suppressing the free flow of ideas.
[Source: By Katie Benner and Cecilia Kang, The New York Times, Washington, 25Sep18]
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