Bad News for Silicon Valley: William Barr is Taking Control of Antitrust Probes

March 2, 2020 Media

Recent moves have sidelined DOJ’s antitrust leaders, leaving oversight of investigations into companies like Google to the AG’s handpicked staff.

Attorney General William Barr has spent months taking greater control of the Justice Department’s antitrust probes into the big tech companies, a development that could increase the peril for major players like Google and Facebook.

Barr has centralized oversight of antitrust matters under a handful of appointees in his office and that of his deputy attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen. Those moves have sidelined the Antitrust Division’s current leadership, headed by Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, who for the past year has been the public face of DOJ’s investigations into Silicon Valley’s treatment of its users and customers.

Delrahim and his No. 2, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Barry Nigro, were both recused from the Google probe earlier this month, for reasons that include Delrahim’s prior legal work for the search giant. That has left the antitrust investigation in the hands of Ryan Shores, a lawyer in Rosen’s office, and Alex Okuliar, an appointee who joined the department less than a month ago.

Delrahim’s chief of staff, William Rinner, is in the process of leaving the agency, according to two people with knowledge of his plans. And Delrahim himself has faced persistent questions about whether he will continue serving under Barr, who had previously clashed with him during a major antitrust fight involving AT&T’s 2018 takeover of Time Warner.

Some Silicon Valley critics see cause for optimism in Barr’s increasing sway over the tech probes, noting that he has had a wealth of antitrust experience as an attorney for companies like Time Warner and Verizon — both major rivals of the dominant online platforms. They view him as more likely than Delrahim to mount a serious antitrust challenge against one or more of the big tech companies.

“He has an understanding of what it’s like to be in competition with these monopolists. He understands what’s at stake,” said Matt Stoller, director of research at the American Economic Liberties Project, an anti-monopoly nonprofit.

“I have more faith in Barr than in Delrahim,” added Stoller, though he still predicted that Barr and the DOJ would bring a narrower antitrust suit against the tech platforms than he believes is warranted.