“And by fertility I mean decision time,” said Barr, who – as POLITICO reported this month – has taken on a more active role than usual in monitoring technical probes. Barr had previously expressed hope of completing the department’s investigation by the end of the year.
The Federal Trade Commission is also pursuing its own investigation into complaints about alleged cartel abuse by Facebook and potentially anti-competitive mergers by technology giants such as Amazon, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft. The House Justice Committee’s antitrust committee continued to publish first results of its own investigation, but had to postpone plans to publish the first results this month.
A person involved in the DOJ’s investigation told POLITICO that it did not expect any obstacles that would result from the White House’s new alliance with industry.
The technical cartel reviews are “a non-partisan issue,” said the person who was not authorized to speak on file of the investigation. “It’s not what the White House wants because it’s not specific to Trump.”
However, several people involved in the DOJ probes said Barr’s early summer timing may be optimistic.
White House public relations work in Silicon Valley takes place on several fronts, including an action launched by President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and a separate action by the Office of Science and Technology Policy – apparently with little coordination. Facebook and Google have responded by using their digital reach to deliver public health news to Americans, while Amazon has changed its extensive distribution network to accelerate the delivery of sanitary and medical supplies.
The industry has also raised the delicate issue of how companies’ vast amounts of data can be used by hundreds of millions of Americans.
“We are truly grateful for technology companies’ efforts to disseminate best practices and guidance online for citizens across the country,” Vice President Mike Pence told reporters last week. “The public mood reflected there is a credit to these great companies and to all the committed Americans who work there.”
From “big bad companies” to “our saviors”
The friendlier mood could have a major impact on another critical factor – the badly tarnished public image in Silicon Valley, which, after two years of data and data protection scandals, helped spark a non-partisan interest in getting the industry going .
Public opinion about the big technology companies was certainly “part of what drives the anti-trust authorities” to open their probes, said Lisa Phelan, a lawyer who has worked in the DOJ’s anti-trust department for 25 years.
“There was some pressure from the public that the companies were big, bad,” said Phelan, now a partner with the Morrison & Foerster law firm. “Now the view is:” These are our saviors and we love them. “It is a possible scenario that their public image changes [and] that can reduce the pressure to bring cases.
Indeed, this change could weaken the political impetus to act against antitrust law, as some of the industry’s antitrust critics acknowledge.
“The technology giants have been violating antitrust laws for years. What was missing was a lack of political will to enforce antitrust laws against these companies, and these tides have changed in the past year and a half, “said Sally Hubbard, director of enforcement strategy at the Open Markets Institute.” And so I definitely think if these companies suddenly become America’s favorites again, this political will could deteriorate somewhat at least at the federal level. “