Lawmakers batter Big Tech CEOs, but don't land many blows

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks via video conference during a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on antitrust on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Washington. (Graeme Jennings/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON – Congressional lawmakers finally got a chance Wednesday to grill the CEOs of Big Tech over their dominance and allegations of monopolistic practices that stifle competition. But it's not clear how much they advanced their goal of bringing some of the world's largest companies to heel.

Invective flew as legislators questioned Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Sundar Pichai of Google and Tim Cook of Apple at a hearing of the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust. For the last year, that panel has probed the business practices of the Silicon Valley giants with an eye to determining if they need to be regulated more heavily, or even broken up.

In nearly five hours of testimony and questioning, however, there were few startling revelations or striking confrontations. While the executives faced hostile questioning and frequent interruptions from lawmakers of both parties, little seemed to land more than glancing blows.

The CEOs testified via video to lawmakers, at times appearing together on the committee room display as tiny individual figures in a mostly empty array of squares. Most committee members were seated, masks on, in the hearing room in Washington.

The execs provided lots of data purporting to show how much competition they face and just how valuable their innovation and essential services are to consumers. But they sometimes struggled to answer pointed questions about their business practices. They also confronted a range of other concerns about alleged political bias, their effect on U.S. democracy and their role in China.

The panel’s chairman, Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, said each platform controlled by Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple “is a bottleneck for a key channel of distribution.”

“Whether they control access to information or to a marketplace, these platforms have the incentive and ability to exploit this power,” he said. “They can charge exorbitant fees, impose oppressive contracts, and extract valuable data from the people and businesses that rely on them.”

“Simply put: They have too much power.”