- The most powerful lawyer in the US is threatening to investigate Silicon Valley over freedom of speech and antitrust issues.
- Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he was gathering state attorneys general to discuss big tech following President Donald Trump’s Twitter tirades last week about Google.
- This suggests a Republican conspiracy theory about a liberal bias in tech platforms seems to have evolved into a high-level Justice Department discussion.
- That conspiracy might be the catalyst that breaks up big tech.
The US government’s sniping at Silicon Valley took an unexpected and serious turn Wednesday when the most powerful lawyer in the country, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, made ominous noises about monopolistic behaviour and censorship.
In a statement on Wednesday, the Department of Justice said (emphasis ours):
“The attorney general has convened a meeting with a number of state attorneys general this month to discuss a growing concern that these companies may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms.”
There are two issues Sessions appears to be concerned with. One is that some tech firms, though he doesn’t say which, are monopolies. The other is that they intentionally stifle free speech.
The latter is a Republican talking point that has gained ground after President Donald Trump accused both Google and Twitter of intentionally stifling right-wing voices, though without much proof.
As an example, he falsely claimed that Google promoted President Barack Obama’s State of the Union addresses but not his own. He also claimed Twitter was “shadow banning” prominent Republicans, something that has been debunked.
It is true that Twitter suspended the right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones from its platform for seven days, though he is active once more and freely posting videos on YouTube. The conservative press has interpreted his suspension as a free-speech issue, even though Jones demonstrably violated Twitter’s policies.
Free speech may be a Trojan horse being used to break up big tech
Trump and Sessions have certainly had their differences recently, but the attorney general seems to be picking up the baton from the president’s Twitter tirades on tech. There are two things about Sessions’ intervention that will surely alarm Silicon Valley.
One is that what had previously been viewed as an emotive Republican conspiracy has evolved into a high-level Justice Department discussion. The other is that the confected free-speech issue might be a Trojan horse to break up big tech.
Sessions said in his statement that he wanted to discuss how tech firms might be stifling competition, an issue that is quite separate from whether they violate the First Amendment.
The three obvious candidates for an antitrust investigation would be Amazon, with its dominance of retail; Google, with its dominance of search and online ads; and Facebook with its dominance of social media.
Many have made the case recently that Facebook should be separated from Instagram and WhatsApp and that Google is the digital equivalent to oil monopolies.
Until now, it seemed unlikely that the US would launch antitrust investigations into three hugely successful homegrown firms. And it seemed especially unlikely that it would be Republicans who triggered such an investigation.
But Republicans’ stated perceptions of bias, and tech firms’ central role in the misinformation scandal involving Russia – which has been hotly pursued by Democrats – mean there is a bipartisan appetite to scrutinize tech companies.
Big tech is in the dock.
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