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AG Nominee Suggests Greater Antitrust Scrutiny Of Tech

‘I think a lot of people wonder how such huge behemoths that now exist in Silicon Valley have taken shape under the nose of the antitrust enforcers,’ William Barr told senators at his confirmation hearing.

Attorney General nominee William Barr told senators Tuesday in his confirmation hearing, without prompting, that he's interested in exploring the idea of scrutinizing big tech companies for antitrust violations.

Asked a more general question about antitrust law by Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican representing Utah, Barr called specific attention to Silicon Valley.

President Trump's nominee to lead the U.S. Department of Justice first said, "Big is not necessarily bad."

[Related: DOJ Should Investigate Comcast-NBCU Over Alleged Antitrust, Lobbying Group Says]

Barr then continued: "But I think a lot of people wonder how such huge behemoths that now exist in Silicon Valley have taken shape under the nose of the antitrust enforcers."

The AG nominee said he wanted to assess how theJustice Department's antitrust division has been functioning, and what its priorities are.

"You can win that place in the marketplace without violating the antitrust laws," Barr told senators. "But I want to find out more about that dynamic."

Barr started the exchange by saying he believed the purpose of the antitrust laws is to protect competition, "and it is competition that ultimately redounds to consumer benefits."

The comments come as Google parent Alphabet battles EU regulators, which fined the company more than $5 billion for Android mobile operating system practices deemed anti-competitive.

In October, just months after the record-breaking European penalty was levied, a U.S. regulator told Congress a similar investigation was possible by the U.S. Justice Department.

Makan Delrahim, the U.S. assistant attorney general who runs the Antitrust Division, in testimony before a Senate panel, didn't rule out the possibility of an inquiry into Google's Android business, two sources at the hearing told The New York Post .

In November, President Trump told Axios that his administration is looking at potential antitrust violations from three companies: Amazon, Facebook and Google.

Trump said the Obama administration also considered breaking up those companies.

The Federal Trade Commission had investigated Google during the Obama years, but found the search giant had not violated antitrust prohibitions.

Former Sen. Orrin Hatch, also a Utah Republican, later called on the FTC to reopen that probe.

In a letter to the FTC, Hatch said that “in the past, Google has placed restrictions on publishers’ displaying search advertisements from its competitors. Google loosened some of those restrictions when faced with antitrust complaints, and the European Commission has said it is monitoring to see if those new restrictions have anticompetitive effects.”

Justice officials also met with state attorneys general in September to discuss potential antitrust violations involving tech companies.

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