Attorney General William Barr
Credit: The United States Department of Justice/WikiMedia Commons

On Tuesday, the Department of Justice announced that it would open an antitrust investigation into the big tech companies.

The Department of Justice announced today that the Department’s Antitrust Division is reviewing whether and how market-leading online platforms have achieved market power and are engaging in practices that have reduced competition, stifled innovation, or otherwise harmed consumers.

The Department’s review will consider the widespread concerns that consumers, businesses, and entrepreneurs have expressed about search, social media, and some retail services online.

On its face, this is the kind of antitrust action that the Washington Monthly has been promoting for years. In addition, several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have discussed plans to break up big tech firms.

There is, however, cause for concern when this administration takes up the case. Starting at the top, it is not clear that Donald Trump understands the issues associated with big tech monopolies. As with every other issue, the topic gets filtered through his demands to feed his own ego.

The president has accused Google, Facebook and Twitter of being biased against him and other conservatives — a charge the companies have repeatedly denied.

“Look, we should be suing Google and Facebook and all that, which, perhaps we will,” Trump said during a phone interview on Fox Business.

Trump has suggested the internet companies may run afoul of federal antitrust laws and floated possible enforcement action against them. Earlier this month, he suggested U.S. regulators should levy massive fines against the tech giants, saying “obviously there is something going on in terms of monopoly” in the sector.

The president in his Fox interview also swiped at Twitter, claiming without evidence that “they make it very hard” for people to follow his personal account and for him to “get out the message.” Trump is a prolific tweeter, frequently using the platform to bash his political opponents and disseminate his message.

As I noted previously, when social media started banning people who used their platforms to incite violence and hate, the president responded by complaining that their actions violated free speech and setting up an online form for users to complain about “tech bias.” He also organized a social media summit that included a veritable who’s-who of right-wing conspiracy theorists.

When Attorney General William Barr addressed the issue, he attacked the systems that protect users’ privacy.

Attorney General William P. Barr said on Tuesday that technology companies should stop using advanced encryption and other security measures that effectively turn devices into “law-free zones” that keep out law enforcement officials conducting criminal investigations…

The Justice Department has long pushed technology companies to help the government gain access to information on electronic devices, a conflict that last peaked in 2016, when investigators obtained a court order that required Apple to help the F.B.I. unlock an iPhone recovered after the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., in December 2015.

Tensions eased after the F.B.I. found a way to get into the phone without Apple, but the case reinvigorated the debate over tech freedom, security and encryption.

As reported by Jack Crowe at National Review, here is a summary of the concerns expressed by Republican legislators.

The newly announced probe serves as the latest indication that the Trump administration has begun to take seriously the mounting Republican opposition to the nation’s largest tech companies. Led by Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, a number of populist Republicans have railed in recent months against Google and other dominant Silicon Valley firms over privacy abuses and the alleged censorship of socially conservative voices on their platforms.

To summarize, what we’ve heard from Republicans is that, contrary to the concerns expressed by those on the left, their intent in opening this investigation has more to do with turning tech companies into replicas of Fox News rather than invigorating competition. In the case of Amazon, Trump has made it clear that his antipathy is more about the fact that the owner, Jeff Bezos, also owns the Washington Post.

Robert Litan, former deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s antitrust division who helped prosecute Microsoft, clearly addressed what is going on with this announcement.

Another way to read this is that the administration doesn’t like any of these tech firms because they think they all lean Democratic and stifle conservative voices, and this is just pure, raw-knuckles payback.

Given all of that, combined with the fact that the attorney general has made it clear that, ultimately, he is this president’s personal attorney and fixer, Democrats should be wary of trusting the department he oversees to conduct an antitrust investigation of big tech.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.