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Josh Hawley, the Republican state attorney general who is challenging incumbent Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill in November’s election, has gained a reputation for taking on tech giants Google and Facebook.
Last Nov. 13, Hawley announced that he was issuing an "investigative subpoena" to Google, as part of an investigation into whether the search-engine company has violated Missouri’s consumer-protection and antitrust laws.
Then, on April 2, he issued an "investigative subpoena" to Facebook, to look into how the social media company shares and tracks its users’ data.
On several occasions recently, Hawley has portrayed himself as being unique among state attorneys general in this regard.
"I am the only (attorney general) in America fighting to hold the big tech companies accountable for their behavior," he said in a primary victory speech on Aug. 7, 2018. Hawley made similar assertions in two radio interviews.
So is Hawley really alone among state attorneys general in holding tech companies accountable? The record shows that while Hawley has been notably active on tech issues, he is far from alone among attorneys general.
For instance, more than 40 state attorney generals from both parties -- including Hawley -- signed a joint letter on March 26 to seek information from Facebook, following revelations that user information from Facebook profiles was provided to third parties without the users’ knowledge or consent.
"With the information we have now, our trust has been broken," the letter said. "We appreciate the information you have provided to date and expect your full cooperation going forward in our inquiries into your business practices. To that end, we expect a full accounting for what transpired. …"
For years, "attorneys general of both parties have been deeply involved in privacy prosecutions and other Internet-related matters," said James Tierney, the former attorney general of Maine who has taught about state attorneys general at both Columbia University and Harvard University.
When we checked with Hawley’s campaign, they said he was referring to cases in which the office issued civil investigative demands, which is the equivalent to a subpoena from an attorney general’s office.
However, we found a few other examples of current state attorneys general going that far against tech giants, or even further (by filing lawsuits). Here they are, in reverse chronological order:
• Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat, filed suit against both Facebook and Google in June 2018 over their alleged failure to "maintain legally required information for Washington state political advertising placed on their online platforms since 2013."
• West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican, filed suit in April 2018 against Equifax, alleging that the company "ignored warnings to secure its system" and "failed to safeguard consumer information," leading to a large data breach.
• Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, sued Uber in March 2018 for violating Pennsylvania’s data breach notification law.
• Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, served a civil investigative demand on Equifax over the data breach in November 2017.
• Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, filed suit against Google in January 2017 over how the company "maintains and uses data collected from Mississippi public school students who have Google’s G Suite For Education accounts."
• Earlier, in 2015, Hood subpoenaed Google over their search practices, and when the maneuver was blocked in court, 40 attorneys general -- 23 Republicans and 17 Democrats -- wrote a letter in support of Hood’s subpoena.
It’s worth noting that Hawley’s actions against Google and possibly Facebook are potentially broader in scope than the other lawsuits mentioned above. The other active lawsuits tend to be more narrowly framed around specific violations.
Hawley has had a "pioneering role in confronting ‘big tech’ over potential consumer protection and antitrust violations," said Kelli Ford, a spokeswoman for the Hawley campaign.
Scott Cleland, the president of Precursor LLC, a consulting firm specializing in the Internet, agreed that Hawley’s actions stand apart from other attorneys general. Hawley "is investigating Google broadly, and civil investigative demands are serious legal actions," Cleland said.
Mark David Blafkin, founder and partner at Verge Strategies, a consulting firm that has advised Silicon Valley companies, said that civil investigative demands are not necessarily made public, so it would be "tough to confirm how many others have been sent to tech firms."
Blafkin said that while the statement Hawley made is probably overly broad, he added that Hawley has shown himself to be one of the leaders among attorney generals in investigating the tech sector.
Hawley said, "I am the only (state attorney general) in America fighting to hold the big tech companies accountable for their behavior."
This is an exaggeration. His actions against Google and Facebook do have a particularly broad focus, but he is not alone in pursuing tech giants -- other attorneys general have also filed lawsuits against those and other companies during the past two years. We rate the statement Mostly False.
Josh Hawley, speech, Aug. 7, 2018
Josh Hawley, radio appearance, Aug. 7, 2018
Josh Hawley, tech investigations webpage, accessed Aug. 13, 2018
Center for State Enforcement of Antitrust and Consumer Protection Laws and StateAG.org, "The State Center Consumer Protection Report" database, accessed Aug. 13, 2018
National Association of Attorneys General, letter to Mark Zuckerberg, March 26, 2018
West Virginia Attorney General office, "Attorney General Morrisey Files Lawsuit Against Equifax," April 12, 2018
New York Attorney General office, "Statement From A.G. Schneiderman on Facebook/Cambridge Analytica," March 20, 2018
Texas Attorney General office, "AG Paxton Continues Formal Investigation Into Equifax Data Breach Affecting 12.2 Million Texans," Nov. 3, 2017
Pennsylvania Attorney General office, "Attorney General Shapiro Files Lawsuit against Uber for Massive Data Breach," March 5, 2018
Mississippi Attorney General office, "AG Hood Files Suit Against Google Over Handling of Student Data," Jan. 17, 2017
Variety, "Attorneys General: Court Shouldn’t Have Halted Google Investigation," June 29, 2015
Breitbart, "Missouri AG Josh Hawley: Congress Went Soft on Facebook’s Zuckerberg," June 16, 2018
New York Post, "The only guy in America brave enough to take on Google," March 24, 2018
NBC News, "Missouri attorney general opens probe into Facebook data collection," April 2, 2018
Email interview with Scott Cleland, president of Precursor LLC, Aug. 13, 2018
Email interview with Mark David Blafkin, founder and partner at Vrge Strategies, Aug. 13, 2018
Email interview with James Tierney, former attorney general of Maine, Aug. 13, 2018
Interview with Kyle Plotkin, Josh Hawley campaign manager, Aug. 13, 2018
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