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AG Nominee Barr to Prioritize Antitrust, Cites Tech Dominance (1)

Jan. 15, 2019, 6:39 PMUpdated: Jan. 15, 2019, 10:35 PM

William Barr, President Donald Trump’s nominee to serve as attorney general, said he would prioritize antitrust enforcement and acknowledged criticism that U.S. technology giants have been able to escape antitrust scrutiny.

Barr, addressing the Senate Judiciary Committee at his Jan. 15 confirmation hearing, fielded questions from senators from both parties about how the Justice Department would reinvigorate U.S. antitrust laws and police tech companies.

If confirmed, Barr would oversee the DOJ’s antitrust division at a time of growing calls for stepped-up scrutiny of technology giants, including Alphabet Inc.'s Google, Facebook Inc. and Inc.

“Antitrust enforcement has to be a priority,” Barr said.

In response to a question from Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Barr said being a big company isn’t necessarily a problem. But Barr also noted that many people are wondering “how such huge behemoths in Silicon Valley” have taken shape “under the nose” of antitrust enforcers.

New Senate Judiciary Committee members — Republican Sens. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) and Josh Hawley (Mo.) — pressed Barr on how big tech companies power would be checked.

‘Network Effects’

Barr indicated that he’d work with the Federal Trade Commission to enforce privacy and antitrust law. He also said he was particularly concerned about dominant tech companies’ “network effects,” which refers to increased value of a product or service driven by the number of users. “I’m concerned of the network effects at work now,” he said. “They are so powerful.”

Hawley asked Barr if the DOJ has the authority to enforce the terms of Facebook’s 2007 consent decree with the FTC, which required the company to give notice to and get consent from consumers about how their data is used. “Because that is something I might have to get involved in, I don’t want to make any comments right now,” Barr said.

Barr also repeated to Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) his earlier pledge to recuse himself from the Justice Department’s ongoing antitrust case against AT&T Inc.’s acquisition of Time Warner Inc. Barr served on Time Warner’s board when the department sued to stop the merger in 2017. The department lost at trial, and the case is on appeal.

Under questioning by Klobuchar, Barr said he was concerned the antitrust division wasn’t considering the “merits” of the merger or “engaging with some of our arguments” when he met with officials before the lawsuit was filed.

Barr’s confirmation hearing will resume Jan.16.

(Updated with additional reporting throughout)

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Chris Strohm in Washington at; Steven T. Dennis in Washington at; Victoria Graham at vgraham@bloomberglaw

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kevin Whitelaw at Larry Liebert (Bloomberg); Roger Yu at (Bloomberg Law)