By Arun Rath and Matt Baskin | December 11, 2020
The attorneys general of nearly every state in the country are taking Facebook to court. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey spoke with GBH All Things Considered anchor Arun Rath about the lawsuit, which claims that Facebook has maintained an illegal monopoly when it comes to social media. Healey also discussed a lawsuit out of Texas challenging the results of the presidential election and talked about the fate of Massachusetts’ police reform bill. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: So I think most people on a gut level, they hear monopoly and Facebook, sounds like it makes sense. Could you walk us through, though, what you and your counterparts contend Facebook is doing that breaks the law?
Attorney General Maura Healey: Well, their actions, at least going back as far as our investigation can tell, probably over the span of the last 10 years, was basically to engage in this strategy: Either we’re going to buy you out, competitor, or we’re going to bury you. Basically what they did is, you know, they bought up companies like Instagram and WhatsApp and others. And then where they weren’t able to buy certain other companies up, they blocked those companies from competing with them in the marketplace by blocking them from access to their platform. And the thing that’s bad about this, of course, is that it stifles competition, which stifles innovation. We’ll never know how many new and improved Facebooks there might have been had they not killed competitors. And of course, this always hurts, anything anti-competitive ends up hurting us as consumers.
Rath: One question I’m wondering is why now? That, as some people pointed out, and I think maybe Facebook may be making this argument, you know, why not when when it bought Instagram, that that was approved, or when it bought WhatsApp?
Healey: Because under the law, you have to look at the whole context of what’s happening. Any individual transaction may have been acceptable, but I’ll just remind people of a few things. Number one, this isn’t about any single transaction. Our case is based on anti-competitive, monopolistic conduct that resulted in wiping out competition in the market space. And what our investigation shows is that they were able to do this over time both through acquisitions as well as through blocking out other competitors. And at this point, it’s quite clear that they’ve been engaging in illegal practices. The relief that we’re seeking is for them to stop these illegal practices. And of course, we need to look at whether or not the court should provide any additional relief it thinks is appropriate, including divestiture or restructuring of any companies that Facebook has acquired to date.
Rath: Facebook has been taking a lot of heat lately really from across the spectrum. You know, it might simplify things, but but broadly speaking, folks who might have been left see it as doing too little to cut down on misinformation and hate speech. Folks on the right feel aggrieved about social media platforms in general and also feel like it’s sort of censored in the other direction. And the Trump administration has made no secret of its desire to rein platforms in. Is there any concern about, you know, this monopoly question, which seems pretty distinct, getting messed up. mixed up with this — that they can be taken as, you know, political punishment somehow?
Healey: Well, I think it’s important to remember a few things here. Number one, this is not political. This is based on the facts, based on the law, and based on clear violations of our antitrust law. But this also is not the first time that we have taken on Facebook. Our office opened an investigation into their practices with respect to how they keep our data. And unfortunately, this has also been a company that has operated with an incredible degree of arrogance. Mark Zuckerberg, if you see him before congressional hearings, sort of sits there acting as if he’s above the law, trying to explain away how wonderful they are understanding full well that what they’re doing is harmful to the marketplace, is harmful to consumers — and really has been not a responsible way to engage in business practices. We’ve tried to get them to change their ways, but they’re not. And so they’re going to be accountable.
Rath: This is going to be something we’ll want to probably talk to you about more going forward, because, again, it is so huge — Facebook seems to affect pretty much everybody, which is, I guess, the point of this. But we do want to ask you about a couple of other things while we have you here. One, which is, I mean, to my mind, it’s pretty much the biggest story of the day or the week, which seems kind of incredible: The situation where we have the Texas attorney general, who’s being supported by the attorney general of a number of other states, is suing four states to basically to try to overturn the election results. You signed a brief in support of the four states and the election process, I might say. But maybe you could talk about what this is about and what’s at stake here?
Healey: Well, you know, over the last couple of months, we have seen one frivolous lawsuit after frivolous lawsuit brought by Donald Trump, the RNC and his enablers. And this is the most recent version. It’s a lawsuit brought in the Supreme Court by Ken Paxton, who’s the attorney general of Texas. He formerly headed Lawyers for Trump and has been doing everything in his power over the last few years to do whatever Donald Trump wants him to do. Actually, it’s ironic because, you know, through the summer, he was working very hard to essentially disenfranchize the voters in his own state. He’s now moved to disenfranchize the voters of the states of Georgia and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and Michigan. It is unprecedented. It is unconscionable. It is legally without any merit. It is sheer politics, and it is a sad day for me to see an attorney general use his office in such a twisted way. It’s a waste of time and resources. I’m sure the court will summarily dismissed this. But, you know, for us in the states, it’s — in one of these states, my colleague in Georgia is a Republican attorney general. I mean, for us, it’s not about politics. It’s about our job and doing our job. And that’s why I joined with with the other states. This is a violation of state sovereignty. The idea that the state of Texas is going to come in and try to undo what the governor and the legislature and electors do in another state is ridiculous. And so, you know, it’s a sad commentary. It’s also sad to me that he was able to have some of the Republican AGs go along. I give huge credit to those Republican AGs who did not go along with this nonsense. And I think history will record their reputations accordingly. But, you know, it is an outrageous act, and this is not good for democracy.
Rath: You mentioned your colleagues, Republican colleagues, Republican attorneys general, secretaries of state. They are getting death threats against them, against their families. There’s actually violence in the air over this.
Healey: There certainly is. And look, last week when the secretary of state of Michigan had to hide in her basement with her four-year-old son while an angry mob gathered outside her house. All of this is directly tied to Donald Trump’s refusal to stop tweeting that he won the election and this election was fraudulent. (U.S. Attorney General) Bill Barr says there’s no fraud. The former head of the elections operation says there was no fraud and that this is the most successful election in history. His own people have said that. But the problem with Donald Trump’s words is that then, there are certain folks who will follow that. But this is, this is the reality, and this is what I need, you know, people really do need to pay attention to. Every time that Donald Trump says that, any time a Ken Paxton or one of these other AGs file a lawsuit like they filed, they continue to give oxygen to conspiracy theorists, to people who are willing to engage in violent protest. There are some attorneys general now who have culpability, along with Donald Trump, in creating in fomenting this violence, essentially.
Rath: I wanted to ask you about the police reform bill that was passed last week by lawmakers. Gov. (Charlie) Baker, sent the bill back to the legislature yesterday, and apparently he could veto it if lawmakers don’t make (the) changes he wants to certain provisions, including one that would limit, but not fully ban, the use of facial recognition technology by police. I know you’ve had your own reservations about some of the bill’s elements. Could you, could you tell us about how you feel about where the, what is in the bill right now and where it is?
Healey: Yeah, well, this, this just came out last night. So we’re taking a look at it now. We’ve had a lot of discussions with members of the legislature, with the civil rights community, law enforcement. You know, I have to say, just to zoom out, I think this is an important day. It’s an important time. This is important legislation, this reform legislation. I think we’re in a good position. And I’ll wait to see more, and I’m sure we’ll be talking more with with others over the next few days.
Rath: So zooming out, as you say, you feel confident that we are going to get the police reform measure passed?
Healey: Absolutely. We have to. So I’m confident we’ll get there. Sounds like it’ll just be a few more days of looking at proposed amendments and, you know, some back and forth in the legislature. But I’m confident we’ll get there.
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