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Attorney general nominee wants to examine the power of tech’s “behemoths”

Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, testified before the Senate Judiciary committee. Several tech-related questions came up.

Attorney general nominee wants to examine the power of tech’s “behemoths”
[Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

At the confirmation hearings on Tuesday of William Barr, Trump’s pick for U.S. attorney general, the nominee said he wants his office to take a closer look at big tech companies like Facebook and Google.

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Several committee members, mostly Republicans, raised the issue of the Justice Department’s willingness to investigate the impact of Google’s and Facebook’s dominance on competitiveness in the tech industry. “I would like to weigh in to some of these issues. I’d like to have the antitrust support that effort, to get more involved in reviewing the situation from a competition standpoint,” Barr said.

Barr noted that he didn’t believe breaking up large companies is always the answer to lack of competition in a given market. “I don’t think big is necessarily bad,” Barr said to Senator Mike Lee (R-UT). But he suggested the tech industry and its consumers may be hurt by the dominance of a few players. “I think a lot of people wonder how such huge behemoths that now exist in Silicon Valley have taken shape under the nose of the antitrust enforcers.”

Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) raised the issue of the Facebook 2011 consent decree, which, among other things, requires Facebook to give consumers notice and get their consent before sharing their information beyond their privacy settings. Critics say the Federal Trade Commission has failed to enforce the decree, even as Facebook has been found to have used its members’ data in unauthorized ways numerous times in the last seven years. Unfortunately, Barr declined to comment on the question of whether or not the department under his leadership might pursue the matter.

Hawley tried to get Barr to say whether he believed the big tech platforms tweak their algorithms to affect voter turnout in ways that disadvantage conservative and libertarian candidates. But Barr passed on this question, too, saying only: “I’m not sure what to think about that.”

Barr, who sat on the board of Time Warner until its sale to AT&T closed last year, recused himself from the Department of Justice’s appeal of a federal court ruling allowing that merger to go forward. Barr made $1.73 million in 2018 from the merger, according to a form filed with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics.

Committee members also raised questions about the attorney general’s interest in, and willingness to, scrutinize big tech companies’ handling of consumers’ personal data. “I also am interested in the issue of privacy and the question of who owns this data,” the nominee said. “It’s not an area that I’ve studied closely or become an expert in, but I think it’s important for the department to get more involved in these questions.”

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After a string of scandalous reports about Facebook’s secret uses of user data, Congress seems more ready than ever to pass a privacy bill giving force of law to a basic set of privacy requirements for tech platforms.

Finally, asked whether he believed Huawei and ZTE could be used by China for theft of intellectual property and espionage, Barr replied: “Yes, my own experience from my old Verizon days says not to use that kind of equipment, even though it may be economically attractive.”

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