Feb 17, 2017

Why Jeff Sessions scares tech companies

Susan Walsh / AP

As the new attorney general, Jeff Sessions has the power to create some major headaches for technology companies.

Sessions has gone after the tech industry for hiring high-skilled foreign workers and resisting law enforcement surveillance requests. Pile on Donald Trump's populist disdain for big companies and suspicion of some dominant tech platforms, and antitrust experts also say Silicon Valley has reason to be worried.

Encryption and privacy:

  • Sessions has been at odds with Silicon Valley over law enforcement's access to encrypted data and pushed back on surveillance reforms.
  • A year ago, Sessions took Apple to task for refusing to help the FBI access encrypted data on an iPhone linked to the San Bernandino attack. The government eventually backed down, but the industry is bracing for increased pressure from law enforcement as surveillance debates heat up.
  • The DOJ will also be involved in crafting policies around cross-border data sharing, an increasingly important issue for American tech companies doing business abroad.

Immigration:

  • Sessions has hammered Silicon Valley companies using H-1B visas to hire foreign workers for engineering jobs.
  • He and Trump share the general view that hiring American workers should be prioritized. The tech industry's long-standing goal of raising the annual visa cap is dead in the water — its goal now is to prevent the program from being gutted.
  • Sessions will be in the position to call for changes to the lottery system that divvies up the visas in ways that could discourage tech companies from using the system at all.

Mergers:

  • Front-runners to lead the DOJ's antitrust division include Joshua Wright (member of Trump's transition team) and Makan Delrahim (deputy White House counsel). They're known in antitrust circles as having traditional Republican pro-business leanings.
  • The real question is whether Trump will try to turn merger reviews into business negotiations. Antitrust experts fear Trump could use the merger review process to extract political promises, like creating jobs. (Mergers, of course, typically end up eliminating jobs.)
  • Take the proposed AT&T-Time Warner merger, which has drawn fire from Trump. Since the two companies don't directly compete against each other, the legal case to block the deal is seen as relatively weak. Still, Sessions could take the cue from his boss to intervene.

Competition:

  • The Justice Department can investigate the behavior of dominant companies if they are accused of engaging in anti-competitive practices (recall the case the DOJ brought against Microsoft in 1998). Typically Republican administrations don't go after companies on competition grounds, but as one antitrust attorney put it, "this isn't your typical Republican administration."
  • Trump has indicated he thinks some tech companies have grown too big and powerful. On the campaign trail, he said Amazon has "a huge antitrust problem." He told Axios he'd "like to create more competition," for companies like Facebook with rapidly expanding size and reach.
  • That means dominant tech companies like Apple and Google could also have targets on their backs, experts said.

What to watch: Immigration and visa program reform is top-of-mind for most tech companies, who've been increasingly vocal in speaking out about Trump's immigration order. But it's the antitrust division that keeps them up at night: Big tech firms know Sessions will have to bless any mergers coming down the pike and an activist department could even look at coming after tech companies the administration thinks have gotten too big. "Trump's a deal-maker," said one D.C. antitrust lawyer. "It's generally been frowned upon, but there's nothing illegal about the White House telling antitrust agencies what to do."

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