U.S. Justice Department to discuss consumer protection at social media meeting

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department said on Monday it will hold a “listening session” with officials from more than a dozen states on Tuesday to discuss consumer protection and the technology industry, an agency official said.

FILE PHOTO: The Department of Justice (DOJ) logo is pictured on a wall after a news conference in New York December 5, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

The meeting, first announced on Sept. 5, was called by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to discuss whether social media companies have intentionally stifled “the free exchange of ideas.” It followed criticisms by President Donald Trump of social media outlets, alleging unfair treatment of conservatives.

Sessions will meet with attorneys general or representatives from California, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, and Texas, among others, said the official, who declined to be named.

Discussions are expected to focus on companies like Facebook Inc (FB.O), Twitter Inc (TWTR.N) and Google owner Alphabet Inc (GOOGL.O), which have been accused by some conservatives of seeking to exclude their ideas.

The companies have denied any bias.

As of Monday, two people familiar with the planning said that they had not yet seen an agenda for the meeting. Last Friday, a person familiar with the discussions said the Justice Department was considering delaying the meeting.

The Justice Department had previously said it had invited a bipartisan group of 24 state attorneys general to attend the Sept. 25 meeting.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has said that he worries about suppression of conservative ideas on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Xavier Becerra from California, home to much of the tech industry, said that he looked forward to a “thoughtful” meeting.

Representative Greg Walden, chair of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a hearing this month that Twitter had made “mistakes” that, he said, minimized Republicans’ presence on its site, a practice conservatives have labeled “shadow banning.”

Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey responded at the hearing that some platform’s algorithms had been changed to fix the issue.

Some of the state officials attending the meeting or sending representatives have also expressed concern about how Google uses consumer data.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood filed a lawsuit against Google in January 2017, accusing the company of misusing data collected from public school students who use the company’s software. That lawsuit is pending.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, meanwhile, opened an investigation in November 2017 into whether Google’s data collection practices violate consumer protection laws. Hawley is also probing whether Google violated antitrust law by manipulating search results to favor its own products.

Google said at the time of the probe being opened that it had “strong privacy protections in place for our users and continue to operate in a highly competitive and dynamic environment.”

Reporting by Jan Wolfe; editing by Lisa Shumaker and Rosalba O’Brien

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