The prospect of Wednesday’s big tech antitrust hearing, during which Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple’s Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai of Google’s parent corporation, and, of course, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos will all be testifying on the “dominance” of their respective companies, is mildly exciting. If nothing else, it should be good for a laugh. The last time Congress did something like this, in 2018, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi (R.) asked Mark Zuckerberg if he knew that companies can actually sometimes track what websites you visit on this dang ole internet thing. “I am aware that cookies are used on the internet,” Zuck replied.
I think it’s safe to say that the level of questioning is not going to rise much beyond what we saw in 2018. Nothing valuable or insightful is going to come out of this because Congress doesn’t understand the internet or big tech, much less have any idea what it would mean to regulate it effectively. The proof of this is that Wednesday’s hearing is happening in the first place.
It is not entirely clear why these four companies are being grouped together for the purpose of interrogation. What, apart from the fact that they are all large and powerful corporations, do Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon have in common? As far as I am aware, the focus of the hearing will not be the offshoring of profits, which is the only thing these companies really share (along with virtually every other wealthy corporation or individual technically based in the United States).
Consider Facebook. If the last decade has shown us anything, it is that Zuckerberg was painfully naive about his company’s potential. I do not think he ever envisioned himself as the world’s single most influential publisher. He certainly did not foresee the role that it would have in politics. This doesn’t mean that he is not happy to profit from his newfound powers or that Facebook cannot be held to account — only that Zuckerberg is in an impossible position. How, as a private entity, can his company serve as the de facto guarantors of First Amendment rights in a world in which older, more decentralized means of communication — thousands of community newspapers, for example, which were once funded by the sorts of ads one now finds on Facebook Marketplace — have all but disappeared? There is no good answer.
Google is a more interesting case. Its core search function is probably the single best example — other than health care, of course — of a public good we have allowed to be privatized. For a whole host of reasons, it would be a good thing if Google were replaced by the Library of Congress or a new entity under the control of the former. This is supremely unlikely. Meanwhile, how Google’s other products managed to displace their competitors — in the markets for browsers and email platforms — is not a great mystery. When Gmail was first introduced we were still in the stone age of Yahoo, Hotmail, AOL, and other poorly designed services. The basic question here is whether it is legal under existing antitrust law for Alphabet to integrate its search, advertising, email, phone, and storage businesses with each other and with its browser. (If U.S. v Microsoft is still good law, the answer is obviously no.)
Apple is easily the major outlier here. For one thing, it is not just a “brand” or a purveyor of services, digital or otherwise. Apple still earns the majority of its revenue from the sale of physical products: smartphones, tablets, and computers. It does not enjoy anything like the monopoly power of the other companies here: its iPhone is currently neck-in-neck with Samsung in the phone sales race, and the company has never even attempted to persuade the majority of the more than one billion Windows PC users to switch to its more expensive computers. There are questions about antitrust in relation to its App Store, but probably not much more significant than the ones that surround whether you should only be allowed to play Nintendo-approved games on a Nintendo. (On these shores this was litigated some time ago.) The worst thing that can be said about Apple is that its labor record deserves far more scrutiny; there is no good reason that its products should be manufactured abroad instead of in, say, Clearlake, California.
Then there is Amazon. Unlike Zuckerberg, who seems genuinely baffled at what his little undergraduate experiment has become, Jeff Bezos saw very far into the future. He is also at the head of the company that has stood the most to gain during the recent lockdowns. Unlike Apple, which has always treated its products as luxury goods, over the last two decades Bezos engaged in what by any definition should be considered dumping in order to capture the market for books and, eventually, as Amazon perfected its distribution network at the expense of the United States Postal Service, virtually every other product imaginable. He operated with the thinnest possible profit margins until Amazon had no meaningful competition, by which time our basic understanding of commerce had been changed forever.
How is it going to be possible to address such a wide range of concerns in the course of a single afternoon? The obvious answer is that it won’t. Instead we can expect a lot of bloviating from members of both parties. Democrats will exaggerate the extent to which Facebook helped Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016 (his share of voters who are active and regular internet users actually declined in comparison with Mitt Romney’s in 2012); they will insist that Zuckerberg and his peers at Google and Twitter have a moral responsibility to put fake news warning labels on videos of Trump in a superhero cape rescuing the Statue of Liberty from the combined forces of CNN and ISIS. Republicans meanwhile will argue that not allowing Jacob Wohl to post that the coronavirus was invented by the Chinese Communist Party in conjunction with Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and the Ku Klux Klan to hurt the stock market is against the Constitution.
Does this kind of theater really help anyone? I mean other than representatives of our two major political parties, who will get to throw their weight around, albeit virtually. (The four CEOs will appear via Zoom, a company with no representatives at the hearings despite the fact that it has grown more exponentially than any of the four during the last year.) Of course not. Nor does it bring us any closer to addressing the Wild West situation that is big tech.
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