US attorneys general mull joint probes into Big Tech over privacy concerns

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday hosted a meeting with top state law enforcement officials to discuss the possibility of investigating tech giants like Google and Facebook over privacy and anti-trust concerns. 

The hour-long ‘listening session’ at the US State Department in Washington DC concluded without a decision on whether to launch joint probes into Big Tech. 

The closed-door gathering was scheduled earlier this month to discuss whether tech companies are ‘stifling the free exchange of ideas’ and examine whether they ‘may be hurting competition.’

But California Attorney General Xavier Becerra says the meeting mainly focused on consumer protection and data privacy issues.

Attorneys general from Alabama, California, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, Tennessee, Utah and DC attended. Five other states sent senior deputies.

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

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

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said that a ‘minute’ portion of the meeting was focused on the issue of potential, online political bias.

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson said talks among the federal and state law enforcers were ‘at the initial stage,’ and had been triggered by a presentation about 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 Justice Department described the meeting as ‘productive’ and said it will review the ‘insight’ shared by the attorneys general and expects conversations on the topic to continue.

Tuesday’s meeting took place on the eve of a congressional hearing on privacy practices at Internet and telecommunication companies. 

Executives from Google, Amazon, Twitter, Apple and AT&T were asked at the Senate hearing Wednesday if they’d support federal privacy protections that pre-empted ‘inconsistent’ state laws.

All said ‘yes,’ with a few qualifications. Bud Tribble, Apple’s vice president of software technology, said the bar would have to be ‘high enough in the federal legislation’ to provide meaningful consumer protections.

The Senate Commerce Committee is considering a new national privacy law.

 

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