Sessions Hears From States on Privacy Threat From Tech Firms

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with a group of state attorneys general on how to protect consumers from dominant technology companies, though they didn’t decide to open an investigation.

Sessions heard from more than a dozen state officials Tuesday at a closed-door meeting weeks after saying he wanted to discuss the "growing concern that these companies may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas."

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

President Donald Trump and some other Republican politicians have complained that Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Twitter Inc. have censored or suppressed conservative voices. Democrats have called that a diversion from concern over Russia’s use of social-media platforms to influence the 2016 presidential election and over the proliferation of offensive content.

In his opening remarks Sessions raised concerns that social media companies have a political agenda and have the power to manipulate public opinion, according to Maryland state Attorney General Brian Frosh.

"To say that I am skeptical of that is to put it mildly," said Frosh, who later in the meeting questioned whether there was any evidence that tech companies’ algorithms had been manipulated for political purposes.

Most of the meeting focused on concerns about how the tech industry handles users’ personal information and whether tech companies overwhelm their competition. They also discussed the potential for collaboration not only among state attorneys general but with the Justice Department as well -- but made no specific plans to investigate any one company for a particular infraction, Frosh said.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who attended the meeting, said no decisions were made in the session but he expects more discussions on how state and federal authorities should approach the industry.

"It’s an important sector," he said. "And we want to make sure it’s operating in a way that’s good for the sector and good for the American people. We have roles as regulators and enforcers to make sure it does so."

Among the thorny issues discussed in the meeting were how the government should deal with the growth and size of tech companies and how antitrust laws affect the industry, Becerra said.

"There are growing concerns that the sector is moving in spaces that most people couldn’t have thought of or imagined," he said.

The White House is considering a draft executive order for Trump that would instruct federal antitrust and law enforcement agencies to open probes into the practices of technology companies.

The document instructs U.S. antitrust authorities to “thoroughly investigate whether any online platform has acted in violation of the antitrust laws.” It instructs other government agencies to recommend actions to “protect competition among online platforms and address online platform bias.”

Makan Delrahim, the head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, who attended the meeting along with other senior department officials, said it was a broad discussion. He declined to comment on concerns raised by the state officials.

"It was a listening session for the attorney general," Delrahim said. "It was a very productive discussion."

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