Big Tech CEOs’ showdown with Congress: The antitrust hearing that wasn’t

All eyes were on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to see if Congress could muster up the focus to figure out whether four of the biggest tech companies of our time were really monopolies. What happened instead was rhetorical chaos and grandstanding.

Whatever hope there might have been that this hearing before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust would be focused and pointed in its questions was quickly dashed: It became clear within minutes that the members of Congress would take their time to ask more or less whatever they wanted of the four tech titans assembled before them.

Scattershot questions ranged from the Representatives’ personal grievances against Gmail’s spam filters to the four CEOs’ thoughts on cancel culture to whether they supported the Southern Poverty Law Center.

U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapa
House of Representatives

Several did manage to stick to the program: Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington State asked some very direct questions of the four about their data collection practices, whether they’ve ever copied their competitors, and whether they’re systematically monopolizing the ad market while controlling all sides of it.

But inbetween the lines of cutting moments from Jayapal — as well as Representatives Mary Gay Scanlon, Joe Neguse, Lucy McBath, Chairman David Cicilline, and a few others who mostly concentrated on questions of antitrust and whether the companies have too much power — other members such as Jim Jordan of Ohio and Matt Gaetz of Florida seemed to have personal axes to grind with the four CEOs.

Jordan and Gaetz, both Republicans, spent several sessions questioning Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai on allegations that their platforms censor conservative news platforms, an issue that has dogged Big Tech for years but has little to do with the allegations of antitrust activity against them.

Representative Greg Steube of Florida at one point perhaps mistook Google CEO Pichai as his personal tech support, pointedly demanding to know why his campaign emails were being filtered into his constituents’ spam folders. One particular line of questioning that Gaetz chose to go down was whether Google at any point had collaborated with the Chinese military, an allegation Pichai said definitively was “absolutely false.”

A lack of focus

Almost all members of the committee had moments of getting sidetracked. Instead of focusing on how much power Big Tech wields over its competitors and whether they should be broken up like monopolies, viewers instead heard about allegations of conservative bias, the spread of misinformation, and where newspaper ad revenue comes from (or doesn’t) these days. Indeed, ranking member Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, during his second round of questioning, took the time to detail how he thought that big companies were a good thing, an apparent pro-monopoly stance.

Bezos, in particular, was very back on his heels when he went through his last round with the representatives. It was Bezos’s first time in front of Congress and many eyes were on him to answer for Amazon’s market dominance.

“It was dispiriting how little he seemed to know about what Amazon perpetuates against us,” said Dania Rajendra, the director of the Athena Coalition, a pro-labor organization that is aiming to reform Amazon’s labor practices.

“There’s a tremendous amount of power that Mr. Bezos wields over our everyday lives,” Rajendra told Digital Trends. “And it was really something to see how many times he suggested that he needed to get back to someone, and the way he couldn’t back up whether this or that was a corporate policy, and what the consequences were for failing to enforce it.”

What’s next for Big Tech?

Outside of some rough moments for Zuckerberg and Bezos, Big Tech likely has little to worry about. Trying to question all four men at once meant lawmakers barely got to press any one topic for long. Apple CEO Tim Cook came out of the hearing looking very good in comparison to the other three. Aside from the fact that not many members chose to take aim at Apple, he was able to employ a choice line about protecting children’s privacy when asked by Jayapal about why certain apps had been removed from the App Store.

Looking forward, of course, the question is whether any regulatory steps can or should be taken against these big companies.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
House of Representatives

Kevin Dinino, the President of KCD PR and a board member of the Cyber Center for Excellence, told Digital Trends that he didn’t believe there was a way to course-correct through regulation.

“Any change is going to have a material impact on any of these company’s bottom lines, and that will trickle down to us rank and file folks from a financial standpoint,” Dinino said, pointing out that many people’s 401k retirement accounts are wrapped up in the fate of these massive companies. “I don’t see how breaking them up is even feasible at this point. I truly do think they’ve become too big, but that’s due to their own success.”

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