Top Antitrust Cop in Spotlight Over Big Tech Inquiry

Top Antitrust Cop in Spotlight Over Big Tech Inquiry

Makan Delrahim plans to explore concerns about the power of Silicon Valley

By Brent Kendall July 7, 2019 7:00 am ET

WASHINGTON—The Justice Department official expected to lead an antitrust investigation into Google’s business practices says he favors taking a broad view of whether Big Tech dominance is harming innovation, product quality and consumer choice.

Makan Delrahim, a 49-year-old assistant U.S. attorney general, has been in the spotlight since The Wall Street Journal reported May 31 that his antitrust division was planning an expansive probe of Alphabet Inc.’s Google. It is an investigation that could shape the search giant’s future and the broader competitive landscape for a generation.

In his first extended interview since then, Mr. Delrahim said that today’s dominant tech companies have developed an array of innovative products that consumers enjoy, from search to social media, many of them with low or no prices. But that didn’t mean there aren’t issues for the government to potentially address.

“You have some of these technology companies touching so many aspects of people’s lives,” he said. “The question is: Do they harm competition, and if so, how?”

Mr. Delrahim said he sees interest across the political spectrum in addressing concerns about the power of Silicon Valley and, more broadly, about declining competition. “The call for stronger antitrust enforcement is bipartisan,” he said. “This transcends political parties or views.”

The Justice Department hasn’t confirmed that it is preparing a Google investigation and Mr. Delrahim steered away from discussing any one company’s specific business practices. Mr. Delrahim, who came to the Justice Department after a nine-month stint in the White House counsel’s office, acknowledged that any Big Tech examination could present challenges, including for government resources.

“But we have incredibly smart lawyers…that really understand how the law applies to these industries,” he said. “I absolutely have all the confidence that we have the people to dig into this.”

Mr. Delrahim immigrated to the U.S. from Iran at the age of 9, during the revolution there. He learned English and spent his teenage years in suburban Los Angeles, working weekends and summers at his father’s service station.

Known widely around Washington as just Makan, he has served in various roles in the executive and legislative branches, including as a top aide to former Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) and as a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s antitrust division during the George W. Bush administration. He also spent more than a decade in private practice, a stint that included antitrust counseling and lobbying.

He once advised Google on its acquisition of internet ad company DoubleClick in 2007, a gig that has prompted Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate and top Big Tech critic, to call for Mr. Delrahim to recuse himself in any Google probe.

The Justice Department hasn’t responded publicly to Ms. Warren but Mr. Delrahim has said generally that he gets advice from career department ethics officials on any potential conflicts.

Mr. Delrahim joined the Trump administration as a White House counsel, where he was a central figure in shepherding Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch through the confirmation process. In two years as Justice Department antitrust chief, Mr. Delrahim has crafted a blend of antitrust enforcement that follows neither the traditional Republican nor Democratic playbooks, at times confounding both his supporters and critics.

Seven weeks into the job, he brought a lawsuit challenging AT&T Inc.’s acquisition of Time Warner, which the government lost. Now, he is engaged in down-to-the-wire deliberations over whether to allow T-Mobile US Inc. to buy wireless rival Sprint Corp., a decision viewed as one of the most important of his tenure.

Several large mergers have passed muster under his watch—with strings attached—such as Bayer AG’s acquisition of Monsanto Co., in which the antitrust division mandated the sale of a record $9 billion in assets to preserve competition.

In several instances Mr. Delrahim has favored middle-ground solutions, an approach that could inform any Big Tech case.

While some lawmakers at both ends of the political spectrum have called for the splitting of megacompanies into parts, such a drastic remedy is rare, and Mr. Delrahim has professed to be a fan of the compromise outcome in the last major monopolization case the Justice Department brought—against Microsoft Corp. in 1998.

After a circuitous route through the court system, including one initial ruling that mandated a breakup, Microsoft reached a settlement with the government to change some aspects of its commercial behavior but stay intact.

Mr. Delrahim has said the settlement stimulated the very competition and innovation that led to the rise of Google and others that he is now charged with potentially reining in.

Mr. Delrahim throughout his tenure has been adamant that politics plays no role in his antitrust decision making, and that he hasn’t been steered by the White House.

“Still there has been no influence in our decisions,” he said in the interview.

President Trump’s public comments continue to complicate Mr. Delrahim’s tenure. Mr. Trump pledged as a candidate to block AT&T’s deal for Time Warner, which owned CNN, a network the president has denounced. Recently the president suggested that customers stop using AT&T’s services to force CNN to pull back on “negative” coverage.

Separately, the president last month accused Google of favoring Democrats and trying to “rig” the election. “We should be suing Google and Facebook and all that, which perhaps we will,” Mr. Trump said in a Fox Business Network interview.

The whirlwind of the past couple of years has left some in the antitrust division dissatisfied, according to people familiar with the matter, who say there is a trust gap between some career staffers and Mr. Delrahim’s front office, which runs a tightly controlled, top-down decision-making process.

Mr. Delrahim said he recently began holding a meeting each week with every career head of the different sections within the antitrust division to talk about pending business, as well as implementing a quarterly question-and-answer session for anyone in the division who wants to attend.

The Justice Department’s planned push on Big Tech comes as Mr. Delrahim has a new boss, U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who in his January confirmation hearings cited an interest in antitrust issues, especially in the tech sector.

After Mr. Barr’s confirmation, many in D.C. antitrust circles speculated that Mr. Delrahim’s days at the antitrust division could be numbered.

The two men had clashed during the AT&T case, when Mr. Barr was a member of Time Warner’s board and one of a handful of people in a confrontational meeting with Mr. Delrahim two weeks before the department sued. They later offered conflicting recollections of the meeting in legal papers, with Mr. Barr questioning the Justice Department’s motivations.

But after settling in at Justice, Mr. Barr, who has known Mr. Delrahim for years, sought out his antitrust chief, put his arm around him and assured him he was on solid footing at the department, people familiar with the matter said.

“I have no intentions to leave,” Mr. Delrahim said.

—Keach Hagey and Sadie Gurman contributed to this article.


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