Attorney General Jeff Sessions plans to meet with state attorneys general later this month to discuss whether tech companies may be "intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas," the Justice Department said Wednesday, Sept. 5, in a statement.
The announcement comes a week after the White House said it would explore regulating Google - and minutes after senior executives from Facebook and Twitter finished testifying before a Senate panel on the companies' efforts to stem the tide of misinformation on the platforms.
Agency spokesman Devin O'Malley said the meeting will also consider whether tech platforms "may have harmed competition" with their actions, a hint that the Justice Department may be weighing antitrust action against the firms.
The announcement significantly heightens the stakes for the tech companies in Washington, where policymakers have widely criticized the digital platforms but have refrained from passing legislation or launching probes into their conduct.
"Pressing Google, Facebook and Twitter on political bias is mostly noise at this point," said Paul Gallant, an industry analyst at the market research firm Cowen & Co. "But if those discussions are implicitly backed by antitrust threats, that's an escalation that will set off alarm bells in the companies."
It also raises fresh questions about whether President Donald Trump's own rhetoric may undercut the Justice Department's efforts. In recent days, Trump has said the companies may find themselves in a "very antitrust situation," accusing Google and Facebook of "suppressing" conservative viewpoints.
But the White House is not supposed to interfere with the law enforcement activities of independent agencies. For example, when the Justice Department went to court this year to block AT&T's proposed merger with Time Warner, the telecom giant sought to compel White House documents that could have showed whether Trump may have inappropriately directed antitrust regulators to stymie the deal.
Wednesday's announcement appeared to catch Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies off guard, according to sources familiar with the tech giants' thinking but not authorized to speak on the record.
Twitter declined to comment on the Justice Department announcement. Facebook and Google didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Legal experts said the agency's announcement "clearly suggests" a willingness to intervene on behalf of conservative critics who say they are victims of discrimination by the companies.
"The irony here is that conservative media has long opposed governmental measures to enforce equal treatment of content by distribution platforms," said Marc Martin, a technology lawyer at the firm Perkins Coie. One prominent example, said Martin, may be found in the Fairness Doctrine - a 1949 policy set by the Federal Communications Commission that required TV and radio broadcasters to air opposing viewpoints on a given issue. That policy is no longer enforced.
This article was written by Brian Fung , a reporter for The Washington Post.
Brian Fung covers business and technology for The Washington Post. Before joining The Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.