Attorneys General Zoom In On Tech Privacy And Power A meeting with the Justice Department was originally pitched to focus on allegations of social media's anti-conservative bias. But the conversation was broadened, raising the stakes for tech giants.
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Attorneys General Zoom In On Tech Privacy And Power

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Attorneys General Zoom In On Tech Privacy And Power

Attorneys General Zoom In On Tech Privacy And Power

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Top U.S. Justice Department officials met this morning with a group of state attorneys general to talk about the tech industry. The Justice Department had originally pitched the meeting as a focus on allegations that the social media companies suppress conservative viewpoints. But the conversation went far beyond that to issues that raised the stakes for tech giants.

NPR's Alina Selyukh is here to tell us more. Hey, Alina.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hello.

KELLY: Hi. So set the scene for me a little bit more. This was a big meeting at the Justice Department. And what exactly was the agenda?

SELYUKH: Right. The gathering was a bipartisan meeting. It was dubbed a listening session by the Department of Justice. There were 14 states represented whether by attorneys general or their deputies. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was there along with his own deputies. And originally they did, as you mentioned, set this meeting up to address accusations from conservative politicians that social media companies allegedly suppress conservative views. But this meeting ended up being a much broader conversation, potentially more significant. I spoke with the Nebraska attorney general, Doug Peterson, who ran through a list of his concerns focused on consumer protection.

DOUG PETERSON: Transparency, whether or not data security is adequate, what type of representations are being made by Internet companies to their users. Do they get true consent?

SELYUKH: Peterson is a Republican. And from what he and others told me about this meeting, the AGs talked about a lot of things - how tech companies like Facebook and Google collect user data, how they protect it, how antitrust laws might be used to set the right standards for consumer privacy and whether simply these companies are too big.

KELLY: OK, so they met. They talked about all kinds of stuff. Did they come up with any concrete plans to act on all this stuff?

SELYUKH: Right. So Peterson told me that next step is many more state AGs are going to be interested in this topic. They are looking at ways to pursue a multistate action of some sort. We don't know what exactly that might mean. It is very early in the process.

KELLY: OK.

SELYUKH: For example, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry has previously spoken about breaking up social media behemoths. Landry did not comment today. But I did speak with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who's a Democrat. And he says the attorney generals today did talk about historic cases when the government moved to break up companies such as Standard Oil and Microsoft. Here's Becerra.

XAVIER BECERRA: There's is a recognition that privacy has a different definition for everyone these days. And what does matter is how the law treats privacy. But clearly, rarely do you have a discussion of privacy without ultimately having a conversation about antitrust.

SELYUKH: And of course antitrust is exactly that question of whether companies are too big. But Becerra said the AGs weren't exactly sure that simply breaking up the companies into smaller pieces would resolve all the concerns - for example, those concerns about privacy.

KELLY: And meanwhile, I'm imagining tech companies might have some thoughts on all this.

SELYUKH: Indeed. Well, I'll tell you a few weeks ago, people in the tech industry were pretty quick to dismiss this whole meeting as political theater. But now we're in a different reality. We've got state AGs from both parties cooperating on much bigger questions. I spoke to Dipayan Ghosh, who is a former policy adviser in Facebook. And he's now a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. And we spoke before this meeting. And he said that just having these prosecutors from all over the country digging around the company's algorithmic secret sauce was going to be tough for them.

DIPAYAN GHOSH: If the state AGs band together with the attorney general and start to ask really difficult, incisive questions of these companies and threaten action if the industry doesn't come to the table and discuss it, then I think that the industry is going to be in a pretty difficult position.

SELYUKH: And this bipartisan meeting today definitely puts them on notice.

KELLY: All right, NPR's Alina Selyukh filling us in there on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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