US President Donald Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, William Barr, said on Tuesday, January 15, he favors strong enforcement of US antitrust laws and would examine statistics showing that scrutiny of mergers is at historic lows.
“I am for vigorous enforcement of the antitrust laws to preserve competition,” Barr told a US Senate panel during his confirmation hearing. “As I said, this is going to be an area I want to get into.”
Barr was responding to questions from Republican US Senator Josh Hawley about what Hawley called all-time low levels of scrutiny of mergers.
“I am interested in exploring those statistics,” said Barr. “At the end of the day, it’s competition we’re worried about in different markets.”
Hawley asked if Barr believed that high levels of concentration in many parts of the economy, particularly the technology sector, could hamper competition and deserve scrutiny.
Barr said he was concerned about network effects that occur when a product’s value to one consumer increases as other consumers use it.
“The thing I’m concerned about are the network effects that are now at work where they’re so powerful that particular sectors could essentially be subsumed into these networks,” Barr replied. “They’re just very powerful network effects because of the size.”
In addition, Barr told US senators that regulators need to take a deeper look at the “huge behemoths” in tech.
“The purpose of the antitrust laws, obviously, is to protect competition,” Barr said in response to a question from Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah). Barr said that competition is ultimately good for consumers, but he suggested that he needs to look more into the topic.
“At the same time, I’m sort of interested in stepping back and re-assessing, or learning more about how the Antitrust Division has been functioning and what their priorities are. I don’t think big is necessarily bad 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… I want to find out more about that dynamic.” Barr stated.
Barr expressed his concerns amid increased scrutiny in Washington over the growth of tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon. The Federal Trade Commission has been examining the effectiveness of antitrust laws in a series of hearings, but it is unclear if that will ultimately lead to any changes in legislation.
Barr also said that he would “absolutely” recuse himself from the Justice Department’s (DOJ) antitrust lawsuit against the AT&T-Time Warner merger. A three-judge panel is considering the the DOJ’s appeal.
Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) asked Barr about his prior criticism of the DOJ’s decision to try to block the transaction. When he was a board member of Time Warner, Barr wrote an affidavit in support of AT&T-Time Warner’s contention that resistance to the merger was politically motivated. He wrote in the affidavit that cited Trump’s “prior public animus toward this merger” as a reason many would view the lawsuit as political motivated.
But at the confirmation hearing, Barr toned down his criticism. He said that his affidavit “speaks for itself,” and that he was expressing concern that the DOJ’s Antitrust Division “wasn’t engaging in some of our arguments…I am not sure why they acted the way they did.”