State attorneys general discuss future tech cases at national conference

State attorneys general could soon play a bigger role in regulating tech companies and digital industries, speakers said at the National Association of Attorneys General’s summit this week.

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, Chairman of the NAAG, has chosen the topic for this week’s conference in Des Moines: Consumer Protection in the Internet Age. Officials heard from experts this week on issues ranging from data privacy to cryptocurrency in preparation for future legal battles their states may engage in.

One of the most important growing legal frontiers highlighted in the discussions was the digital economy, as state and federal lawmakers work to create rules for companies that trade online and companies that own these online spaces.

“We need states to be stronger”

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director Rohit Chopra told the AGs to expect more cases involving tech companies and online finance.

“The pandemic has accelerated the digitization of our daily lives,” Chopra said. “…Each sector is changing and offers new opportunities, but also many questions.”

Many of these questions, Chopra said, relate to how best to protect consumers as technology advances. He said AGs should consider federal agencies like the CFPB as partners when it comes to these legal fights — but federal authorities sometimes lag behind where states can act quickly.

“We need states to be stronger,” he said.

He pointed to an antitrust case that 48 attorneys general filed in 2020 against Meta, then Facebook, which alleged the company was stifling competition to protect its “monopoly power.” The case was dismissed in June 2021 when a federal judge argued that the states waited too long to challenge the acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp. The attorneys general appealed this decision last January.

Frances Haugen, a whistleblower who worked for Facebook, spoke at the event. She had revealed on Instagram internal research conducted by the company that showed a correlation between the algorithms used and mental health problems in adolescents, especially girls. Haugen, from Iowa, argued that the company could monitor existing algorithms and create new methods to help young people exhibiting risky behavior.

Miller joined the group of at least 11 state GAs investigating Meta following the leaked document. State officials are investigating whether data showed Meta violated consumer protection laws and put the public at risk with algorithms used to keep young people engaged on Instagram.

This isn’t the only case of a tech company’s use of children’s data that was discussed at the conference. A panel discussed a federal lawsuit filed by New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas against Google, which alleged the company collected data about New Mexico students and their families from educational products.

Google collected personal information from physical locations to browsing history and voice recordings, Balderas said in the lawsuit, in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The law requires parental consent before a company can collect personal information from a child under 13. The state settled the lawsuit in December, with Google agreeing to launch an online privacy and safety project for children in New Mexico.

But data collection isn’t just a problem for children, Federal Trade Commissioner Alvaro Bedoya told conference attendees on Tuesday. Vulnerable populations are at risk due to the lack of government control over data collection, he said. Domestic violence survivors have been threatened because of geolocation data collected, Bedoya said, and fraudsters are targeting people who don’t speak English in online scams.

To help those most affected by these practices, the government must step in, Bedoya said. That means passing more legislation regulating data collection in Washington and state capitals, he said, but also for state and federal authorities to pursue more challenges.

“Algorithmic discrimination isn’t just about what’s under the hood,” Bedoya said. “It’s also about having the right mechanic – or just having a mechanic, period.”