“And by fruition, I mean decision time,” said Barr, who — as POLITICO reported this month — has taken a more active role than usual in overseeing the tech probes. Barr has previously expressed hope of wrapping up the department’s investigations by the end of the year.
The Federal Trade Commission is also pursuing its own probe of complaints of alleged antitrust abuses by Facebook and possibly anticompetitive mergers by the tech giants including Amazon, Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft. And the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel still aims to release initial findings from its own probe, though it had to delay plans to release initial findings this month.
One person involved in the DOJ investigations told POLITICO that they did not expect any obstacles raised by the White House’s new alliance with the industry.
The tech antitrust probes are “a bipartisan issue,” said the individual, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record about the investigations. “It’s not about what the White House wants because this is not specific to Trump.”
Several people involved in the DOJ’s probes said they thought Barr’s early-summer timing might be optimistic, however.
The White House’s outreach to Silicon Valley is happening on multiple fronts, including one effort launched by President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and a separate one by the Office of Science and Technology Policy — by all appearances with little coordination. Facebook and Google have responded by using their digital reach to deliver public health messages to Americans, while Amazon has changed its sprawling distribution network to speed up deliveries of sanitation products and medical supplies.
The industry has also broached the delicate topic of how to employ companies’ vast stores of data on hundreds of millions of Americans.
“We’re truly grateful for the efforts of tech companies in disseminating best practices and guidance for citizens online, all over the country,” Vice President Mike Pence told reporters last week. “The public spiritedness that’s been reflected there is a credit to those great companies and a credit to all the dedicated Americans who work there.”
From ‘big, bad companies’ to ‘our saviors’
The friendlier vibes could have a big impact on another critical factor — Silicon Valley’s much-battered public image, which after two years of data and privacy scandals has helped drive a bipartisan interest in bringing the industry to heel.
Public opinion about the major tech companies was certainly “a piece of what was driving the antitrust agencies” to open their probes, said Lisa Phelan, an attorney who spent 25 years at the DOJ’s antitrust division.
“Some pressure was coming from the public sense that these are big, bad companies,” said Phelan, now a partner at the law firm Morrison & Foerster. “Now the view is, ‘These are our saviors and we love them.’ It’s one possible scenario that their public image changes [and] that may reduce some of the pressure” to bring cases.
That change could indeed blunt the political impetus for an antitrust crackdown, some of the industry’s antitrust critics acknowledge.
“The tech giants have been violating the antitrust laws for years. What was always missing was a lack of political will to enforce the antitrust laws against these companies, and those tides have turned in the last year and a half,” said Sally Hubbard, director of enforcement strategy at the Open Markets Institute. “And so I definitely think if all of a sudden these companies are America’s darlings again, there could be some deterioration of that political will, at least at the federal level.”