Two Democratic state officials on Tuesday warned Attorney General Jeff Sessions against policing the way tech companies handle content on their platforms after they said Sessions repeatedly brought up concerns that the firms are politically biased.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh and District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine, two of the AGs who attended a Justice Department meeting with Sessions and other DOJ officials, said the discussion at times veered in a worrisome direction.
Frosh told reporters outside the DOJ that Sessions “talked about the economic power of the social media giants and of privacy concerns, but he also talked specifically about political News that the Justice Department is concerned about.”
The Maryland AG said there was consensus that tech companies’ economic power and privacy issues raise concerns, but he said, “I at least, and I know a few others, strongly disagree that the government, the Justice Department should be attempting to stifle political speech in any way whatsoever.”
Antitrust laws “are not grounded in speech and bias,” he said, adding it “would be a serious mistake and threat to First Amendment if the government engaged in a campaign to change the way that people are allowed to express themselves on Facebook, Google, Twitter, whatever.”
The Justice Department’s readout of the meeting made no mention of tech bias but said it expects the dialogue to continue. Officials from 13 states and Washington, D.C., attended Tuesday’s gathering.
“Each state attorney general’s office shared their views of the important issues for federal and state authorities to consider when addressing these evolving technologies,” DOJ said in a statement. “The discussion principally focused on consumer protection and data privacy issues, and the bipartisan group of attendees sought to identify areas of consensus.”
Sessions’ move to hold the meeting came amid Republican claims that the country’s biggest internet companies are suppressing conservative views that run counter to the beliefs of left-leaning Silicon Valley. Such GOP accusations of systematic bias — made without evidence and denied by the companies — have picked up pace heading into the midterm elections.
President Donald Trump has embraced the conservative grievances in recent months. He’s lashed out at Google, saying the company manipulates news search results to portray him in a bad light, and he’s targeted Twitter with claims that it “shadow bans” conservatives, reducing the visibility of their accounts. In an interview last month, Trump suggested Amazon, Facebook and Google are in a “very antitrust situation,” though he declined to say whether they should be broken up.
Tech industry representatives have criticized the DOJ meeting.
“At a time when the misuse of governmental power to pursue personal or partisan agendas is increasingly understood to constitute a threat to the rule of law, and the stability of our nation, a meeting that appears to use anti-trust enforcement power to intimidate free speech is a particularly bad idea,” Ed Black, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, said ahead of the DOJ session. His group represents companies including Google, Facebook and Amazon.
Racine, the attorney general of D.C., framed the meeting as a preliminary discussion.
“I think the plan is for AGs to talk further and identify perhaps specific actions where there may be some joint interest,” Racine said, adding that “those areas will likely be in the realm of privacy and the use of consumer personal information, and not allegations of bias.”