Sessions agrees to include Democrats in meeting on Social Media

Attorney General Jeff Sessions gathers his thoughts as he takes the podium for his press conference on efforts to combat violent crime at the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Georgia on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, in Macon, Ga. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

September 13, 2018

By John Harney and Chris Strohm

WASHINGTON — U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ meeting with state attorneys general to discuss complaints against social media companies has been expanded to include Democrats, the Justice Department said on Thursday.

Sessions had planned to meet only with Republican officials for a Sept. 25 gathering in Washington to consider a possible investigation of the giant technology companies over privacy concerns and over accusations by prominent Republicans, including President Donald Trump, that they have suppressed conservative voices.

In a tweet last month, Trump wrote, “Social Media is totally discriminating against Republican/Conservative voices. Speaking loudly and clearly for the Trump Administration, we won’t let that happen.”

“Following last week’s statement, the Justice Department received an increased level of interest from state attorneys general in attending the Sept. 25 meeting on tech companies, competition, and free exchange of ideas,” a Justice Department official, who asked not to be identified under department protocol, said in a statement.

“Today, the Justice Department formally sent invitations to a bipartisan group of 24 state attorneys general that expressed an interest in attending the meeting hosted by Attorney General Jeff Sessions,” the official said. “The meeting will take place here at the Department of Justice, and we look forward to having a robust dialogue with all attendees on the topic of social media platforms.”

The Sept. 25 briefing — which is also to include a representative of the Justice Department’s antitrust division — is intended to help Sessions decide if there’s a federal case to be made against companies such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. for violating consumer-protection or antitrust laws, people familiar with the matter have said. They asked not to be identified discussing the issue because of its sensitivity.

The briefing was to include the attorneys general of Alabama, Nebraska, Tennessee, Louisiana and Texas — all Republicans. It wasn’t immediately clear how far their inquiries have gotten or how coordinated they are. States have the authority to investigate anti-competitive conduct and deceptive practices by companies.

California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, a Democrat, said Thursday that he would attend.

“States like California, the nation’s tech leader and home to a $385 billion tech industry, have a wealth of insight and expertise to share in any inquiry about the role of technology companies and we look forward to a thoughtful conversation in Washington, D.C.,” Becerra, who has battled many Trump administration policies in court, said in a statement.

A Justice Department investigation of the social media giants for potentially improper business practices would be likely to trigger a political firestorm.

While Trump and some other Republican politicians have complained that Facebook, Google and Twitter have censored or suppressed conservative voices, Democrats have called that a diversion from concern over Russia’s use of social media platforms to influence the 2016 presidential election and over the proliferation of offensive content.

Some attorneys general have been pursuing the companies on their own.

Washington State’s attorney general, Bob Ferguson, has sued Google and Facebook, charging them with not complying with state transparency laws for political advertising.

Last year, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, who’s now running for U.S. Senate on the Republican ticket, opened an antitrust investigation into whether Google manipulated search results to benefit its own products and whether it scrapes information without permission from competitors.


Naomi Nix contributed to this report.


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