We got a huge clue that Republicans will act on Trump's war on Google, and it might spark a breakup of big tech

  • The most powerful lawyer in the US is threatening to investigate Silicon Valley over freedom of speech and antitrust issues.

  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he was gathering state attorney generals to discuss big tech following Trump's Twitter tirades on Google last week.

  • This should alarm tech firms because that means a Republican conspiracy theory about a liberal bias in tech seems to have evolved into a high-level Justice Department discussion.

  • That conspiracy might be the catalyst that breaks up big tech.

The US government's sniping at Silicon Valley took an unexpected and serious turn on Wednesday when the most powerful lawyer in the country, attorney general Jeff Sessions, made ominous noises about monopolistic behaviour and censorship.

In a statement on Wednesday, the Department of Justice said (emphasis ours):

"The attorney general has convened a meeting with a number of state attorneys general this month to discuss a growing concern that these companies may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms."

There are two issues Sessions appears to be concerned with. One is that some tech firms, though he doesn't say which, are monopolies. The other is that they stifle free speech.

The latter is a Republican talking point that has gained ground after President Donald Trump accused both Google and Twitter of stifling right-wing voices, though without much proof.

As an example, he falsely claimed that Google promoted Barack Obama's State of the Union address, but not his own. He also claimed Twitter was "shadow banning" prominent Republicans, something Twitter has denied and which has been debunked.

It is true that Twitter did suspend right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones from its platform for seven days, though he is active once more and freely posting videos on YouTube. The conservative press has interpreted his suspension as a free speech issue, despite the fact Jones demonstrably violated Twitter's policies.

Free speech might be a Trojan horse being used to breakup big tech

Trump and Sessions may have had their differences recently, but the attorney general seems to be picking up the baton from the President's Twitter tirades on tech. There are two things about Sessions' intervention that should alarm Silicon Valley.

One is that what is effectively an emotive Republican conspiracy can evolve into a high-level Justice Department discussion. The other is that the confected free speech issue might be a Trojan horse to breakup big tech.

Sessions said in his statement that he wanted to discuss how tech firms might be stifling competition, an issue which is quite separate from whether they violate the First Amendment.

The three obvious candidates for any antitrust investigation would be Amazon, with its dominance of retail, Google, with its dominance of search and online ads, and Facebook for its dominance of social media.

Many have made the case recently that Facebook should be separated from Instagram and WhatsApp, and that Google is the digital equivalent to big oil monopolies.

Up until now, it has not looked likely that the US would launch any antitrust investigation into three hugely successful homegrown firms. And it seemed especially unlikely that it would be the Republicans who triggered any kind of probe.

But Republican sensitivity to perceived bias, and tech firms' central role in the Russian misinformation scandal — which has been hotly pursued by Democrats — mean there is a bipartisan appetite to scrutinise tech companies.

Big tech is in the dock.

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