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State officials press Sessions on tech privacy worries

State officials press Sessions on tech privacy worries
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Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump unsure if Mattis will stay: 'He's sort of a Democrat' Will Sessions use indefinite mandatory detention to reduce the demand for asylum hearings? Chicago sues Trump admin for withholding police funding over sanctuary city policies MORE met with a group of state attorneys general on Tuesday to discuss concerns about the tech industry’s practices, following allegations from Republicans of anti-conservative bias.

According to attendees, Sessions raised the issue of how Silicon Valley handles political speech, the intended focus of the meeting. But many of the attorneys general instead put the spotlight on data privacy and concerns about market power.

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“I've got to say that the AGs were much more focused on privacy and the use of personal information, the extent of full disclosures and the commercialization of that personal information,” said Karl Racine (D), the attorney general for Washington, D.C., in a phone interview.

That sentiment appeared to cross party lines.

“It was mentioned very briefly, but we intentionally tried to move towards the issues of consumer protections and antitrust,” added Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson (R). “It was not our intent from any of the attorneys general to have that kind of discussion."

Nine state attorneys general attended the meeting on Tuesday morning and five other states were represented by top officials. Some of the most senior officials at the Justice Department were also present, including Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod Jay RosensteinThree reasons Mueller may not charge Trump with obstruction Rod Rosenstein must recuse himself Trump: Nunes should receive Medal of Honor MORE and Makan Delrahim, the assistant U.S. attorney general for antitrust.

The meeting had raised alarm in Silicon Valley.

Sessions announced the meeting earlier this month as Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was testifying on Capitol Hill. Dorsey faced tough questions from GOP lawmakers over accusations that conservatives were being targeted on his platform.

Dorsey and other tech leaders have insisted their platforms only police behavior, not political content.

But those denials have failed to assuage conservatives and the Trump administration. They have continued to level attacks on the industry over perceived anti-conservative bias, an issue which resonates with their base.

In addition to Twitter, conservatives have also accused Google and Facebook of bias. Trump in August accused Google of censoring conservative media and linking to articles from outlets critical of his administration.

Those attacks rattled the tech industry, which feared the prospect of tougher scrutiny from the attorney general.

But the attacks over alleged bias have frustrated other critics of the tech industry who say the government should instead be focused on the market power wielded by internet giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon, as well as their privacy policies.

American tech companies have faced heavy fines for alleged antitrust violations in Europe, and consumer advocates in the U.S. have called for a tougher stance on market competition issues.

Trump in August said tech giants may face an "antitrust situation," though he said it was too early to discuss whether they should be broken up.

California Attorney General Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraPublic charge rule is a cruel attack on children Federal judge rules against Sessions's effort to hit sanctuary cities Internet providers sue California over net neutrality law MORE (D) told reporters that officials meeting with Sessions managed to keep the focus of the meeting on privacy and competition issues.

He said the handling of consumer data received the most attention.

“The conversation really zeroed in on privacy,” Becerra said. “I think everyone sees the growth of the industry as something that has become of interest to regulators and enforcers."

It’s still unclear what next steps, if any, the states and the Justice Department plan on taking. According to reports, the Justice Department had previously characterized the meeting as a listening session.

Some of the attendees told The Hill that the meeting opened up a dialogue for them to coordinate their inquiries about the tech industry. But they cautioned that they have much work ahead in understanding problems with data privacy and how to develop appropriate controls.

“I've got to say, there's a lot to learn,” Racine said. “The room wasn't chock-full of 25-year-olds in hoodies who live in Silicon Valley and know this stuff like the back of their hand.”

But the tech industry is increasingly sensitive to the prospect of tougher regulation.

Last week, Bloomberg reported on a draft executive order from the White House directing agencies to open up antitrust probes of the industry. Administration officials, though, quickly distanced themselves from the document in subsequent reports.

Industry leaders have tried to head off new rules, insisting they can self-police on data matters.

Ahead of the Sessions meeting, TechFreedom, a free market group, wrote to the Justice Department over concerns about the administration's new focus on the tech industry.

"We do not believe that the Department of Justice, as an arm of an Administration that has so consistently attacked social media companies (as well as traditional media companies), has the independence to act in the neutral, apolitical fashion required by the First Amendment," the letter said.

But the meeting is also unlikely to lessen conservatives' attention on bias or the divide between Republicans and Democrats on the issue.

One Democratic attorney general told The Hill he has concerns about the administration efforts.

“He [Sessions] said that there's a political agenda the people don't understand and that social media platforms manipulate public opinion,” Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh (D) told The Hill in a phone interview.

“I came away from the meeting very concerned about free speech and what this administration intends to do to address points of view in opposition to theirs.”

However, another attendee who declined to be identified disputed Frosh's characterization of Sessions's comments.