California Attorney General Is a No-Show on Tech Investigations

WASHINGTON — When numerous state attorneys general gathered last month on the steps of the Supreme Court to announce an antitrust investigation into Google, one was conspicuously absent: Xavier Becerra, California’s attorney general.

He was also missing from a list of state attorneys general publicly signing on to a joint antitrust investigation into Facebook, released last week by New York.

Mr. Becerra’s curious no-show from the public announcements has provided one of the more enduring questions about the scrutiny of the tech industry sweeping through Washington and state capitals. What is Mr. Becerra — whose state is home to most of the country’s biggest tech companies, including Google and Facebook — up to?

His decision to skirt the question has led to questions about what one of the largest and most influential states is doing on the tech antitrust front. Mr. Becerra’s office has more resources — money and people — than most state attorneys general, which would be needed to pursue a major legal case against one of the top tech companies.

It has led to criticism from political rivals and groups calling for aggressive action against the giant tech companies, as well as attention from local news organizations. Yet Mr. Becerra, who has been vocal about problems with Silicon Valley in the past, has remained fastidious about saying little about any potential investigations. He has neither confirmed nor denied that his office is examining Google, Facebook or any other tech company.

“No one except California and the A.G.’s office knows what, if anything, we’re doing with regard to either of those two or any other company in the internet space,” he said in an interview this week. He added that he was following his office’s longstanding practice not to speak publicly about a possible investigation.

Earlier this month, Mr. Becerra responded to a question about California not publicly endorsing the joint investigations by asking one of his own.

“How do you know we’re not investigating?” he said.

Mr. Becerra’s spokeswoman, Sarah Lovenheim, said the office did not disclose what it was or was not investigating to protect the integrity of its work. “It’s just our policy not to comment on any pending or potential investigations,” she said in a statement.

Other attorneys general offices are not offering any insight, either. Fabien Levy, a spokesman for Letitia James, the New York attorney general, said that her office “cannot comment on whether we have or have not had a conversation with another state about any of our investigations.”

Mr. Becerra, a Democrat, spent more than 20 years in the House before getting elected as California’s attorney general and taking office in 2017. Since he left Washington, anti-tech fever has become an animating force in politics. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, has made breaking up Big Tech a calling card of her presidential campaign. The House Judiciary Committee, where Mr. Becerra once served, is also running its own antitrust investigation into Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon.

Mr. Becerra has been willing to take on the large tech companies in other contexts. His office is developing regulations around the California Consumer Privacy Act, an online privacy law that the internet industry has tried to weaken. The law gave consumers more rights over their data when the legislature passed it last year, but it is up to Mr. Becerra to propose the rules and enforce them.

“It’s an incredibly technical matter; they got a lot right,” said Ashkan Soltani, a technologist who has been involved with supporting the California law.

His office has also been aggressive in other antitrust matters. In addition to challenging T-Mobile’s merger with Sprint, it announced a tentative settlement this month in an antitrust lawsuit with Sutter Health, a Northern California hospital system. Mr. Becerra has also expressed concern that consumer data was being concentrated among a small number of online platforms.

On Oct. 1, eight groups who have advocated more aggressive scrutiny of companies like Facebook and Google wrote to Mr. Becerra asking to discuss their concerns with him. Sarah Miller, the deputy director of one group, the Open Markets Institute, said they wanted “to offer to share our views, to hear his views and to help brief or provide educational support.”

“Your state is at the epicenter of this national conversation, giving you a unique and powerful position,” the groups wrote. “We hope to build a constructive line of communication as these corporations continue to be under public and regulatory scrutiny.”

The groups heard nothing until after Ms. Miller followed up 10 days later. Officials eventually offered to set up a phone call between the groups and some of Mr. Becerra’s senior aides.

Ms. Miller said that the issue was whether Mr. Becerra would “have political courage and join, even symbolically, these investigations that are looking into whether these companies are monopolies that our public institutions should be addressing.”

Asked generally about his contact with critics, Mr. Becerra said this week that his office was “in conversation with both competitors and critics of some of the industry in the tech field” on an “ongoing basis.”

Republican state lawmakers in California have also attacked Mr. Becerra over his public absence from the investigations, saying the state should have a voice in the investigative process.

Four of them have introduced a resolution, which has yet to attract any Democrats, calling on the attorney general to “work closely with other state attorneys general to determine legal actions the State of California and other states may take to curb the monopolistic powers of giant technology companies.”

When it comes to talking about investigating those platforms, however, Mr. Becerra insists his hands are tied.

“It puts me in a predicament,” he said. “Unlike when I was a member of Congress and I could pretty much say whatever I wanted, I’m in a different position now.”