Remember back in the 20th century when Congress held “big business” antitrust hearings with the CEOs of Standard Oil, Ford, U.S. Steel, IBM, and AT&T all testifying at the same time? No? That’s probably because it never happened.
Despite the fact that all of those giant companies were accused of antitrust violations — and stealth employee monitoring software in two of those cases, forcibly broken up by the justice system — you just wouldn’t ever stick them in the same room. Their industries are too obviously different. Representatives would have to read up on oil, autos, metallurgy, computers, and telecoms. Try to tackle them all at the same time, and you’d dilute the effect of scrutinizing each one.
And yet the 21st century equivalent of such a muddled hearing did actually happen on Wednesday. The House Judiciary’s subcommittee on antitrust stuck the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google together in the same room (well, the same WebEx virtual room) for around five hours. Evidence was presented that each one has acted like a monopoly, which they have… dominating retail, apps and hardware, the social media business, and search engines, respectively.
The subcommittee’s chairman, Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, introduced the four CEOs as “gatekeepers to the digital economy.” Which, in 2020, makes as much sense as calling them real estate barons because they all own vast server farms. They are, and also you’re missing the point.
Digital is simply the water we all swim in now, especially now in a pandemic. These are four of the world’s largest and most influential companies, period. Their means of establishing monopoly power in their realms are diverse and complex (we wrote a neat cheat sheet here). They require individual scrutiny.
The clueless lumping together of Big Tech was what allowed the committee’s unserious conservative members to turn much of a serious antitrust hearing into an irrelevant grievance session on “cancel culture.” It’s what allowed Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the committee’s ranking member and clearly its least prepared, to confuse Facebook with Twitter. To be clear, there is no conservative bias in online media, as you can tell from a quick glance at any given day’s most popular posts on Facebook, invariably led by Fox News and Ben Shapiro.
A day devoted to each CEO might have yielded more actual investigation, less howling distraction.
The unbitten Apple
We ran the numbers, and each CEO received a tremendously unequal chunk of a five-hour hearing. Tim Cook got off almost scot-free, answering questions for just 18 minutes (plus a 5-minute opening statement). That means the Apple CEO was sitting in his plant-lined Cupertino office for more than 4.5 hours where he could have been grilled about his oft-curious gatekeeping of Apple’s App store, the lifeline for millions of developers, but wasn’t.
As several Twitter wags joked, Cook could have approved the final designs of the iPhone 12 in the time he spent waiting for lawmakers to call on him.
Jeff Bezos stood accused of driving retail competitors out of business, as well as using data from his sellers to create competing Amazon products. Amazon could afford to take losses of up to $200 million per quarter on the price of diapers. So it did, driving diapers.com to sell to Amazon in 2010, then raising the price of Amazon diapers. (Amazon shuttered diapers.com in 2017 because it wasn’t profitable.)
That’s pretty much the definition of illegal antitrust behavior. So is using third-party seller data — that competitors can’t access — to make your own branded products. In another time, in a one-witness committee, these truth bombs hurled at the world’s richest man would have been front-page news for days.
But Bezos was on the hook for just over 35 minutes. Alone among the CEOs, he turned his screen off — which, in a forum this important, can only be taken as a sign of contempt. He had mastered the art of saying next to nothing, and was given much opportunity to say nothing at all. He even had time for a snack.
Lawmakers reserved the bulk of their inquiries for Google’s Sundar Pichai and, especially, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. At least with these two, it made sense to stick them together: They’re the titans of online advertising, competing for many of the same ad buys.
But one is monetizing search (and to a lesser extent, videos, email, maps, and Android apps). The other is doing some truly scary next-level monetization of what we like and what we hate, and is a prime target for unscrupulous influence campaigns. Never mind a day; each one deserves weeks of live legislative oversight. Modern society and the survival of democracy may depend on it.
Gonna make Zuck sweat
For Zuckerberg, Democrats on the committee had brought receipts in the form of internal emails. Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a democrat, made the Facebook founder stumble over what seemed to be a clearcut case of him copying a smaller competitor. Zuckerberg struggled to explain a “joke” email about Facebook growing large enough to buy Google. Nervously, facing reminders he was under oath, Zuck later suddenly confirmed that yes, he remembered that time he paid teens to sign away their privacy for $20 a pop.
Now consider that all this sweat was wrought in the space of 49 minutes. Zuck spoke to the committee for less time than he speaks to Wired. Give him two hours under the gaze of America’s designated investigators, and we might yet solve the full enigma of Cambridge Analytica. How deep do all of Facebook privacy rabbit holes go? Since we’re the product, just how much are we being sold? Asking for two billion users.
It has often been said that antitrust law, founded to expose anti-competitive behavior in the 19th century, is not up to the challenge of creepy corporate behavior in the 21st century, and Facebook is the prime example. But on the evidence of today, antitrust committees aren’t up to the challenge either.
What could they do differently? Start by providing tech support to its members, for one, so they’re less confused about how their Gmail blasts end up in spam boxes. But more fundamentally, the people’s representatives need to go native. Perhaps the age of texting demands that Congress shift to a text-based platform.
Call it the Reddit model: So long as we have proof the CEOs are at their keyboards, we don’t actually need to see them. The under-oath statements could be supplied in the form of a day-long AMA, albeit one where you have to answer literally everything. And all that cancel culture whining from the GOP could be dealt with in a separate channel. Call it “off topic.”
Or, in the spirit of tech diversity, let us put it another way: This whole hearing could have taken place on Slack.