THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT wants states to go after technology giants for antitrust violations. Or does it want states to go after companies for stifling free speech? It’s hard to tell from the department’s statement announcing it will convene a meeting of state attorneys general, and that confusion makes the move all the more worth watching.
After Jack Dorsey of Twitter, Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and an empty chair representing Google appeared before the Senate last week, Justice said it would hold a summit with the top state legal officials to “discuss a growing concern that these companies may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms.” At first, the department failed to reach out to any Democratic attorneys general — including those in California and Washington state, each home to tech behemoths. But now a formal invitation has been extended to a bipartisan group of 24 attorneys general, and both those states made the cut. At least California is planning to attend.
It’s heartening that the Justice Department switched course and included Democrats in the conversation. The most popular technology platforms exercise substantial influence over our daily lives, and it is incumbent on prosecutors and legislators alike to watch how those platforms use their power. The Federal Trade Commission is holding a series of hearings that began this week; the FTC and other relevant officials are right to pay attention to possible anticompetitive policies, such as a company restricting access to its peers’ products, or mergers and acquisitions that could harm consumers.
Justice’s focus on speech, however, along with its initial exclusion of Democrats, raised worries that the department is less intent on promoting competition and protecting the consumer than on promoting and protecting the political agenda of the administration. Technology companies’ supposed systematic suppression of conservative viewpoints is a hobby horse for Republicans (and for the president, in particular) that studies have found scant evidence to support.
Market power and speech issues are connected; the ability to manipulate social media or the search market can confer the ability to manipulate the message. That could raise complicated concerns, and they need to be addressed honestly with all affected interests. A backdoor approach to browbeat companies into catering to conservatives, or to foment anger against tech titans as means of energizing the base ahead of elections, would not be a constructive approach.
The techlash is in full force, and the Justice Department meeting could be an opportunity for attorneys general to discuss what, if any, oversight is necessary. Attendees must make sure antitrust matters are addressed on their own merits, not as a means of punishing companies for an unproven crime.