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The virtual hearing, which was postponed by a couple of days for Congress members to pay their respects to Rep. John Lewis, will include testimony from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, and Sundar Pichai of Alphabet, which owns Google, and aims to explore the dominance of tech giants. Antitrust experts expect to witness two things during the hearing: critical statements and questions from Congress members across party lines, and defenses from the tech CEOs about why their services and practices do more good than bad.
“You’ll see a lot of tech bashing from both sides,” said Douglas Melamed, Stanford Law School professor who previously served as acting assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust division. But the “heavy lifting will be in [public relations], not in economic analysis.”
The virtual hearing is the first time the CEOs of four of the largest tech companies will provide testimony to Congress at the same time. It also comes as the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission are investigating whether the companies have violated any antitrust laws. Meanwhile, the companies continue to face rising public and government scrutiny over privacy concerns, the dissemination of hate speech and violence, and their aggressive competitive practices.
The hearing is expected to highlight three schools of thought, according to experts: Democrats will argue that Big Tech has become too big and powerful and thus needs to be reined in. Republicans will also speak to the harms of Big Tech but with a slight nuance in favor of creating new regulation specifically for the tech companies rather than changing overarching antitrust laws. A third group will push the message that these are great American businesses that provide needed services at low costs to consumers.
Melamed expects the hearing to give the public a better idea of how inclined Congress is to pass new regulation. It also could give viewers an idea of what future legislative proposals may look like. “You’ll learn that by the nature of their questions,” he said.
Previous congressional hearings with Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Alphabet’s CEO Sundar Pichai revealed Congress members’ lack of knowledge about how these big tech companies work. And while experts say there will likely be more of that in Wednesday’s hearing, there will also be direct questions related to specific purchases, growth strategies, and monetization efforts.
Tim Wu, professor at Columbia Law School and former senior adviser to the FTC, said Zuckerberg likely will be grilled, in a cross-examination form of questioning, about statements he made in internal emails about the purchase of Instagram, for example. “The big challenge for them is whether they have a Bill Gates moment,” he said, referring to Gates’ congressional hearing in 1998. “He didn’t say anything crazy, but he became incredibly hostile and antagonized. He started behaving like a kid.”
Google and Facebook will likely get the worst criticism, while Congress members will be a little less condemning of Amazon and Apple, Wu said. “If it goes the way the subcommittee wants, I think it’ll invoke some squirming and embarrassment, especially on the part of Facebook and Google,” he said.
Though the hearing is slated to focus on antitrust, other topics including misinformation, privacy concerns, censoring speech, and hate speech will likely arise, as well. Wu said Congress will probably try to tie those issues to antitrust concerns. They’ll attempt to show that the companies’ size and power have led to an environment in which hateful content and misinformation are able to thrive. Because the tech companies are so big, Congress may point out that actions such as a $5 billion fine from the FTC and a temporary ad boycott have had relatively little impact on their businesses. “I want to see whether they’re able…to convince the public that monopoly is a harm in terms that matter to people,” Wu said.
Dipayan Ghosh, fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, said he expects Congress to examine the new business models, which rely on a combination of attention and personal data, these companies created. Congress members may try to show that these new models, which are largely unregulated, have some of the largest profit margins, Ghosh said. “Yet what we’ve seen is these very practices and business models are exploitative of individuals and promote harms,” he said.
Congress may also look at whether Big Tech should be treated like utilities, which are allowed to remain monopolies but under heavy regulation from state, federal, and local authorities, Ghosh said. If that were the case, Facebook, for example, may be deemed a “natural monopoly,” or the sole provider because of its dominance of the market.
But Wu and Melamed expect companies like TikTok, which has become a viral social media phenomenon among teens, and other search engines serve as a rebuttal to that argument. Meanwhile, Walmart still outpaces Amazon in terms of revenue, and the giant retailer is also planning an e-commerce service that would rival Jeff Bezos’s creation. “As long as you have credible active threats, you’re not really in the classic public utility, natural monopoly setting,” Melamed said.
Though the CEOs will likely face some tough questions, their testimony will be given from the comfort of their own spaces because of the coronavirus pandemic. The virtual setup is probably why the CEOs all agreed to the testimony, said Wu: “How stressed out can you get when you’re probably still wearing pajama bottoms?”
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