How Congress Bungled Its Big-Tech Probe

How Congress Bungled Its Big-Tech Probe
AP Photo. VIP

What a missed opportunity. 

The House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee’s marathon hearing Wednesday did little to illuminate the incredibly important issues in front of lawmakers who assembled the chief executives at Facebook, Alphabet, Amazon, and Apple. The hearing’s bloated format seemed to lend itself more to memorable theatrics than real depth. 

That’s why big tech’s critics rightfully pushed for individualized testimony and the testifying companies requested to be questioned at the same time leading up to today’s grilling. 

If anything, the hearing demonstrated how cunning these tech titans can be when it comes to undercutting the competition. There was Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg saying he didn’t recall having ever threatened to clone the products of another company while attempting to acquire them. Rep. Pramila Jayapal—perhaps the only person who made a favorable impression in the proceedings—quickly pointed out how Zuckerberg strong-armed Kevin Systrom into selling Instagram to Facebook after letting Systrom know he was developing an Instagram camera app competitor.

Additionally, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was asked about the April 2020 WSJ report that alleged that Amazon uses third-party seller data to launch its own competing products. Contrary to what Amazon’s general counsel had said under oath a year earlier, he didn’t flat out deny it. 

But these moments will be lost in the sea of questions that often veered toward the ridiculous, such as when Google CEO Sundar Pichai was questioned over his company’s allegiance to the U.S. and Zuckerberg was questioned over the Donald Trump Jr. ban that in fact happened on Twitter.

These types of questions took away from valuable time that could be used for lawmakers to lengthen exchanges on other specific antitrust-concerned questions. 

The hearing was a disjointed mess. Bezos, after his initial opening statement, wasn’t addressed for over an hour after the hearing started. Cook, who seemed to be ignored for much of the hearing, ended up getting asked 35 questions in total, while this figure was 59, 61, and 62 for Bezos, Pichai, and Zuckerberg, according to the New York Times. 

All four came prepared to run out the clock by speaking in generalities and promising to “get back” to lawmakers that in some cases seemed to lack familiarity with the companies they were questioning. Was Bezos really not informed prior to the hearing by whomever was handling negotiations with AT&T for the placement of HBO Max on Amazon’s Fire TV device what the exact status of something he was sure to be questioned about? Hardly. 

How this committee will have much to glean from today’s hearing is a mystery; let’s hope future antitrust law doesn’t suffer as a result.