WASHINGTON – They command corporations with gold-plated brands, millions or even billions of customers, and a combined value greater than the entire German economy. One of them is the world’s richest individual; another is the fourth-ranked billionaire. Their industry has transformed society, linked people around the globe, mined and commercialized users’ personal data, and infuriated critics on both the left and right over speech.
Now Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai and Tim Cook of Apple will answer for their companies’ practices before Congress for the first time as a group. Summoned for a House hearing, they’ll raise a hand (remotely) and swear to tell the truth, in the manner of tycoons of Wall Street or the tobacco industry in earlier high-octane televised shamings. It will be Bezos’ first-ever appearance before Congress.
The House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust is capping its yearlong investigation of Big Tech’s market dominance with Wednesday’s teleconferenced hearing spotlighting the four CEOs.
“It’s mostly theater. There are few genuine facts left to gather,” says Daniel Crane, a law professor at the University of Michigan who focuses on antitrust.
Still, the CEOs’ approaches to the questioning are important, Crane notes. “Are they willing to admit that there’s a problem with Big Tech’s market power, or is it denial mode? Will they recommend innovative private solutions, or retreat into defending themselves as champions of consumer interests who play it fair?"
The bipartisan probe stands out in a capital steeped in partisanship, where Republicans and Democrats are now arguing over the size of new federal pandemic relief. It’s the first such congressional review of an industry that for over a decade has enjoyed haloed status and a light touch from federal regulators.
Critics question whether the companies stifle competition and innovation and pose a danger to society. The Judiciary panel collected testimony from mid-level executives of the four firms, competitors and legal experts, and pored over more than a million internal documents from the companies.
A key question: Whether existing competition policies and century-old antitrust laws are adequate for overseeing the tech giants, or if new legislation and more funding for enforcement are needed.