President Donald Trump's administration warned Wednesday of a possible legal crackdown on big technology companies over competition or political bias, in a bombshell announcement that came as social media executives were defending their policies before lawmakers.
The Justice Department statement appeared to escalate a war between the administration and Silicon Valley after a series of attacks by Trump claiming tech firms were biased against conservatives.
According to the statement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions will convene a meeting of state attorneys general later this month "to discuss a growing concern that these companies may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms."
The suggestions of legal or regulatory action caught many tech industry observers by surprise and came as lawmakers were holding hearings on foreign influence campaigns on social media and "transparency."
Daniel Castro, of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said the intent of the statement was not clear, but that it was worrisome.
"Social media platforms have the right to determine what types of legal speech they will permit on their platforms," Castro told AFP.
"The federal government should not use the threat of law enforcement to limit companies from exercising this right. In particular, law enforcement should not threaten social media companies with unfounded investigations."
Legal analysts have noted the government would have little recourse against any political bias even if proven because of constitutional free speech guarantees.
While antitrust concerns against Google and Facebook are to be expected, Eric Goldman of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University said it would be troublesome to use antitrust law as a guise for regulating speech.
"This (statement) makes me think antitrust is not the real goal, that the real goal is censorship," Goldman said.
"This could be broad action by the government to try to subvert the First Amendment."
The administration statement came at the conclusion of a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing at which Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg testified.
Dorsey said the messaging service was set up to function as a "public square" but had failed to deal with "abuse, harassment, troll armies, propaganda through bots."
Sandberg repeated Facebook's acknowledgements about failing to crack down on influence campaigns stemming from Russia that interfered with the 2016 US presidential election.