Jan 15, 2019 - Technology

AG nominee wants to look at tech giants' power

Attorney general nominee William Barr

Attorney General nominee William Barr. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Attorney General nominee William Barr said he was interested in examining the power and impact of large tech companies during his Tuesday testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Why it matters: The fact that Barr singled out privacy and competition as key issues for tech — and that so many lawmakers asked him about it — is a sign that Silicon Valley should expect scrutiny from a Barr-led Justice Department.

What he's saying: Barr outlined some priorities when it came to looking at giant tech firms like Google, Facebook and Amazon in response to a question from Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.).

"I would like to weigh into 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. I also am interested in the issue of privacy and the question of who owns this data. 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."

Barr was less certain when asked if the Justice Department has the authority to address allegations of bias on dominant online platforms — a concern of many conservatives, despite a lack of evidence that engineers at the tech companies have intentionally built bias into their products.

  • "I would have to think long and hard before I said that it was really the stuff of an antitrust matter," Barr said. "On the other hand, it could involve issues of disclosure and other — implicate other laws like that."

Yes, but: Barr declined to comment whether he would consider pursuing enforcement action against Facebook, which has been accused of violating a privacy settlement it reached in 2011 with the Federal Trade Commission.

The bottom line: Barr's comments are a boon to the swelling ranks of tech critics in Washington, from the tech giants' competitors to activists.

  • "I don't think big is necessarily bad," Barr said to Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). "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."
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