Tech | July 30, 2020 12:01 pm

What We Learned From the Congressional Hearings Against Big Tech

The House launched a bipartisan attack on Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon

Mark Zuckerberg on video conference
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress on Wednesday.
Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images

Turns out the only thing uniting us is a distrust of big tech companies.

At Wednesday’s antitrust hearings, House lawmakers on both sides questioned and cornered the CEOs of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple. Admittedly, the criticisms were divided by party, as Democrats concentrated on anti-competitive practices while Republicans concentrated on an anti-conservative bias. As well, the proceedings took on a slightly surreal atmosphere, as tech heads Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook were all grilled via teleconference.

“As gatekeepers to the digital economy, these platforms enjoy the power to pick winners and losers, shake down small businesses and enrich themselves while choking off competitors,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D – RI) and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, in regards to criticisms that large tech companies buy up and stifle startups. In one exchange, Mark Zuckerberg was asked about Facebook’s 2012 acquisition of Instagram, where internal emails had suggested the sale as a strategy to take out a competitor.

Amazon also faced questions regarding counterfeit goods, using data on third-party sellers to create and sell their competing goods. Apple was subject to concerns about its App Store and the advantage of its own in-house apps. A target for Facebook was content moderation. And then there was Google, which seemed to take the brunt of the criticism. The search giant was questioned for stealing content, its relationship with China and a bias against conservative voices (in which Pichai responded, “There are more conservative voices than ever before” on the Google-owned YouTube) … as well as whatever this strange “bigoted, anti-police” accusation was.

As The New York Times suggested, Congress can’t break up these companies and is limited by current antitrust laws to do much of anything. But as Axios noted, “Representatives succeeded in wringing some surprising admissions from the executives about how they wield their market power, providing ammunition for regulators now conducting investigations — and possibly a spur for Congress to strengthen antitrust law for the digital era.”

And The Interface found the grilling “heartening.” As Casey Newton posited: “For the first time in half a century, Congress is taking its role as antitrust regulator seriously, and has undertaken a 13-month investigation that has so far produced 1.3 million documents laden with evidence. Members of the subcommittee have largely come to believe, as I do, that tech companies have grown too powerful and are in need of regulation. Wednesday offered them a chance to show us what they have found so far — and to hint at where they might be going next.”

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