President Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, said at his first confirmation hearing today that he would look into whether Silicon Valley social media companies were abusing their market position to stifle competition and what the Justice Department’s role should be on the issue of consumer data privacy.
The question that prompted the response came from junior Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) who dedicated his allotted time to asking Barr about issues surrounding data privacy and the centralized power companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google have on the market.
“I’d like to have the antitrust [officials] support that effort to get more involved in reviewing the situation from a competition standpoint,” Barr said. “I don’t think big is necessarily bad, but I think a lot of people wonder [how] these big behemoths have taken shape in Silicon Valley.”
In December, William Barr was nominated by President Trump to replace former Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department, and today he sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer questions about his long record as an attorney in both the public and private worlds.
Most recently, Barr was on the Time Warner board while the company initially sought to merge with AT&T in 2017. He advocated for the merger and voted on the initial $85 billion deal that eventually led to the creation of WarnerMedia. He met with Justice Department antitrust officials, along with other board members, to discuss the deal. In June, the merger was approved by a lower court, but the Justice Department filed an appeal. The appeal is still being litigated.
After pressure from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Barr said he would “absolutely” recuse himself from the case, if he was confirmed.
In questioning, Barr said he would like to take a closer look at the role the agency should play on privacy, but did not discuss it at length. “I also am interested in the issue of privacy and the question of who owns this data,” he said. “It’s not an area that I’ve studied closely or become an expert in, but I think it’s important for the department to get more involved in these questions.”
Barr said he would also explore the alleged bias that big tech companies’ algorithms have on the dissemination of information online.
AT&T isn’t the only telecom Barr has worked for in the past. After serving as former President George H.W. Bush’s attorney general for two years, Barr moved on to represent corporate clients. In 1993, he served in positions at the telecom company, GTE and Verizon. His work focused primarily on the merger between GTE and Bell Atlantic, which eventually morphed into Verizon in 2000. Barr also worked on Verizon’s MCI and Alltel acquisition.
If Barr is confirmed, he would oversee the antitrust division at the agency, the same one he butted heads with at Time Warner, and would look into whether to break up social media giants like Facebook.