Barr Signals Silicon Valley Giants Deserve Scrutiny

Attorney General nominee William Barr signaled Tuesday that if he is confirmed he wants the Department of Justice to look into how Silicon Valley giants have gotten that big.

Asked by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) whether he thought big was necessarily bad, Barr said no, but...

The "but" was that he was "sort of interested" in "stepping back" and reassessing, or at least learning more about "how the antitrust division has been functioning and what its priorities are."

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"I don't think big is necessarily bad," he said, "but 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."

Many in Congress on both sides of the aisle have been wondering that too, which is why the CEOs of Facebook and Google have testified on issues ranging from privacy to cybersecurity to election meddling and content control.

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Barr conceded Silicon Valley giants could have won their market share without violating the antitrust law, but added: "I want to find out more about that dynamic."

Congress has previously been primarily focused on the power of internet service providers as the gatekeeper between garage-innovating edge providers and their subs, but that view is changing with the size of FAANG--Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google--together dwarfing ISPs and the GNP of whole nations--and revelations about inappropriate data sharing, misuse of their platforms by foreign powers, allegations of content censorship--or lack of content oversight in other cases--and much more.

In follow-up questioning on the issue form new Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Barr said he did not want to get "too far ahead of my skis" on Big Tech issues since he had been advised that his recusal from issues related to AT&T-Time Warner extended to AT&T. He also added that he was not casting aspersions on any particular company or executive.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), in a further follow-up, said that tech companies control the flow of information to consumers to an unprecedented degree, including influencing news. He said there was growing evidence that tech giants were leveraging their market, if not not monopoly, power to disfavor conservative and libertarian viewpoints and asked if DOJ has the authority under antitrust or consumer protection powers to address that bias. Barr said he would have to think long and hard before saying that was an antitrust issue, but did say it could involve disclosure issues or implicate other laws.

Asked specifically about whether there was any point at which the ability of Facebook and Google to manipulate algorithms to potentialy favor candidates of their choice would require a DOJ response, Barr said he would have to think about that one, too.


John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.