September 7, 2018 at 6:11 PM
Democratic attorneys general from key states said they have not yet been invited by the Justice Department to its upcoming review of tech companies, prompting criticism that the Trump administration's inquiry is a politically charged attack on the tech industry.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions first announced on Wednesday that he was gathering state attorneys general to examine whether companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter are “intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas” online. The goal of the meeting, the Justice Department said in a statement at the time, is to follow up on a hearing that had just taken place on Capitol Hill with Facebook and Twitter and consult with "a number" of states to figure out if Silicon Valley's conduct is "hurting competition." The meeting is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 25 in Washington.
Democratic attorneys general from California and New York — two tech hubs — as well as officials from Connecticut and Washington, which are active on issues related to technology, consumer protection and antitrust, so far have not been invited, representatives for each state confirmed this week.
The Democratic Attorneys General Association said it "had not heard any Democratic attorneys general [are] invited" as of Friday morning, according to communications director Lizzie Ulmer.
Only Ken Paxton, the Republican attorney general of Texas, has said he will participate at the event, slated for later this month, a spokesman said.
The Justice Department has received inquiries from a number of Republican and Democratic attorneys general, according to a person familiar with the planning, who said planning for the meeting is still in its early stages.
A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment.
The potentially partisan nature of DOJ's meeting raised deep suspicions among some tech experts, particularly against the backdrop of President Trump's recent comments attacking social media sites as biased against conservatives — and threatening regulations and investigations in response.
"This type of meeting, in a highly politically charged environment, will have no credibility if all the participants come from the same political party," said Gene Kimmelman, a former top official at the Justice Department who is now the president of Public Knowledge, a consumer group.
The Washington Post this week reached out to all 50 states' attorneys general. By Friday, 10 Democrats and five Republican state attorneys general said they had not received an invitation. The lack of clarity led Bob Ferguson, the attorney general of Washington state, to write Sessions on Friday to ask him to explain who was invited, why they were invited and if Trump’s tweets last week accusing tech companies of ideological bias played a role in Sessions’s announcement. The Justice Department was working on the issue before lawmakers convened their hearing Wednesday, according to a person familiar with the plans who was not authorized to speak publicly.
“Normally, you’d want to invite all the state AGs because you don’t want to leave uncoordinated some of those relationships,” said Jeffrey Blumenfeld, a former DOJ antitrust official and a partner at the law firm Lowenstein Sandler. “I don’t know of a time, ever, where there was picking and choosing among state AG offices at the invitation level.”
The announcement represented the latest escalation from the Trump administration and its Republican allies who claim Silicon Valley is biased against conservatives. Trump himself has led the charge, describing Twitter's behavior earlier this year as "illegal" and later suggesting Google has "rigged" search results to show negative stories about him. His top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, initially said the White House is exploring possible regulation before Trump walked it back. Days later, though, the president said that companies like Google find themselves in a "very antitrust situation."
On Friday, Kudlow took to Fox Business Network to stress that he "never said the word regulation" with respect to search results — but did note that the tech industry has "a lot to be accountable for … with respect to withholding conservative searches and conservative tweets."
"I don't want to get ahead of it with respect to legal or regulatory actions," he said.
But the attorney general’s interest in how social media allows or blocks content left many in the tech industry uneasy and drew sharp rebukes from free-speech advocates, who said the government should leave the matter up to private businesses. Even conservative groups expressed their dismay.
“Antitrust laws exist for the good of American consumers, not to further the political interests of public officials,” David Barnes, the policy manager for Americans for Prosperity, said in a statement Thursday. “The Justice Department should not wield its authority to subjectively pick winners and losers in the tech industry or to police free speech.”
Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.