Justice Dept. Meeting With State Officials Focuses on Data Privacy

September 25, 2018 Updated: September 26, 2018

WASHINGTON–A Justice Department “listening session” with state attorneys general on Sept. 25 focused on protecting consumer privacy when big tech companies amass vast troves of data, but came to no immediate conclusions, three participants said after the meeting.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions led the discussion with attorneys general or other representatives from 13 states and the District of Columbia, the department said.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, and Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson said after the meeting, which lasted about an hour, that much of the discussion focused on whether concerns about the collection of consumer data can be addressed using antitrust law.

The group made no immediate plans to file a case or open any investigation, Becerra said.

The discussion had been expected to focus on companies like Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc., and Google owner Alphabet Inc., which have been accused by some conservatives of seeking to exclude their ideas.

Hood said that a “minute” portion of the meeting was focused on the issue of potential, online political bias.

Peterson said talks among the federal and state law enforcers were “at the initial stage,” and had been triggered by a presentation about the collection of consumer data which was given at a June meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General.

Hood, whose office has already sued Google, said that he would like to see private, consumer information treated like intellectual property.

Becerra said that much of the discussion focused on grappling with how best to use a slow-adapting legal system to address issues related to data use, sale and collection, most of which is invisible to the ordinary consumer.

“There are growing concerns that the sector is moving into spaces that most people couldn’t have thought of or imagined and trying to understand what that means. And so whether or not there is a definition within our current legal architecture that fits or embraces what is going on these days is part of the question,” said Becerra.

The meeting, first announced on Sept. 5, was called by Sessions to discuss whether social media companies have intentionally stifled “the free exchange of ideas.”

Becerra said he expects a larger group of state attorneys general to address the issue at an upcoming meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General.

Consumer data is a powerful tool that companies use to decide where to place advertisements, what content to feature, and which consumers might be interested in the product.

The easiest step would be for antitrust agencies to consider opposing mergers of companies that combine large caches of consumer data if that data can enhance market power, such as Apple’s acquisition of the music recognition app Shazam, said Diana Moss, president of the American Antitrust Institute.

Moss also noted that mergers that combine data processing capability, which relies increasingly on artificial intelligence, could also enhance the market power of already powerful companies in a way that could violate antitrust law.

“Data and data processing can absolutely be a strategic asset that can be enhanced by a merger (and) can be used by a dominant firm to exclude rivals,” she said.

By Jan Wolfe & Diane Bartz