Big tech eyes Belgium conference for clues on crackdown

Top tech executives kept close tabs on an economic antitrust conference held Tuesday in Brussels, Belgium for clues on how global regulators are planning to crack down on the industry, FOX Business has learned.

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The conference attracted a slew of regulators from Europe and the United States, including state attorneys general and antitrust officials from the Trump administration, which sparked concerns for mega-companies that face unprecedented regulatory scrutiny of their business practices.

Making matters even more unsettling for Alphabet's Google, one of the biggest targets in the various probes was the person hosting the event: Cristina Caffarra, a vice president at the economic consulting firm Charles River Associates.

Caffarra has consulted for Google competitors and she has been retained as an adviser in the investigation of Google by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, FOX Business has learned.

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Paxton is mounting one of the most aggressive investigations into Google's business practices by looking at whether the company is using its search engine to benefit itself as opposed to other companies, thus violating antitrust laws. Caffarra is working as an unpaid adviser to Paxton, but in a recent filing in Texas, Google said it wanted assurances that Caffara would not share confidential information gleaned from the probe with its competitors.

In the filing, Google cited Caffarra's business with Microsoft, News Corp and Russian search engine Yandex. FOX Business, a subsidiary of FOX Corporation, was formerly part of the same company as News Corp before the two split in 2013. Caffarra is not doing work for those companies now, thus people close to her say there is no conflict of interest in her advising Paxton. Like other experts with her background, she has always maintained a strict policy of confidentiality, these people add.

Google, which has denied that it's done anything wrong, declined to comment for this article. Paxton also declined comment, as did Caffarra and a spokesman for Charles River Associates.

"Given the ongoing investigations of Google and Facebook across Europe [European Commission and European Union member states], it's useful for agencies to talk," one person close to the conference who asked not to be named tells FOX Business. "This happens all the time."

The conference, titled "Antitrust in Times of Upheaval — a Global Conversation," was attended by about 1,000 business executives and regulators, including tech officials from Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple. Trump antitrust chief Makan Delharim was initially listed as a speaker but because of a scheduling conflict, Delharim could not attend, a spokesman said. The Justice Department’s antitrust division sent other representatives, the spokesman said.

Press officials from Facebook, Amazon, and Apple declined comment.

According to an attendee, tech regulation was one aspect of the conference, along with other panels on antitrust issues. It's unclear if regulators provided guidance on how much additional regulation tech will likely receive in the future.

Caffarra has hosted this conference for the last decade, attracting mainly European regulators who were intent on cracking down on big tech. During the last few years, Europe has also become hostile territory for tech, and the EU has adopted sweeping privacy legislation in the form of General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, which allows regulators to fine companies up to 4 percent of global revenue for violations of the policy.

Increasingly, the U.S. is becoming just as hostile. The DOJ and Federal Communications Commission have mounted major probes into Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple. State attorneys general have also launched probes. On Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr stated that he would like the probes concluded soon and that he is open to possible enforcement action against big tech.

Indeed, one noticeable change at this year’s conference was the attendance of free-market regulators, such as Republican attorneys general, underscoring widespread interest in addressing the public concerns or privacy and other potential over-reach in the big-tech business practices that have prompted the wide-ranging regulatory assault. Representatives from federal departments and agencies have attended previous conferences.

For instance, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson and the Assistant Attorney General Max Miller, of Iowa, spoke, and it was the first time representatives from these offices have attended, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

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"We recognize [antitrust concerns are] a challenge that transcends borders, so we think it is worthwhile to interact with antitrust scholars and regulators around the globe," a spokesman for the Iowa attorney general told FOX Business.

The DOJ declined comment, and the Nebraska attorney general did not respond to request for comment.

Some tech analysts say the Trump administration is also attending the conference as a show of support for one of the country's largest industries and employers.

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The Trump administration, while mindful of the dangers of big tech, made a notable statement last week criticizing what it views as a European targeting of American companies. At issue is a decision by the French government to impose a so-called GAFA tax targeting big tech companies such as GoogleAmazonFacebook and Apple. GAFA is an acronym of these companies. In response, the administration is considering levying additional duties on French products.