Congress and the media love naming important sounding working groups. The “Gang of Eight,” “The Squad,” and the “Gang of Six” are some of the monikers embraced by members of Congress. It is no surprise then that the leaders of the biggest technology companies in the United States were granted their own numerical nickname invoking images of the railroad “robber barons” before their recent congressional testimony: “The Big Four.”
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Alphabet and Google’s Sundar Pichai, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Apple’s Tim Cook testified virtually on Wednesday, July 29 about whether their companies exploit their market dominance to quash competition and juice their own products and services, according to NPR.
The leaders of the four companies, whose combined net worth is $5 trillion, sat through six hours of questions from Congress, bringing the term “Zoom fatigue” to a whole new level.
The complex part about leveling anti-trust claims against big tech is that each of these four companies operate in separate, massive industries. This is not oil, railroads, or software. It is consumer goods, data privacy, information, elections, search engines, mobile applications, smartphones and much more.
House Judiciary Antitrust Panel Chairman Rep. David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) was wrong when he said it is reminiscent of previous American monopolies. Big tech’s innovation is larger and much more impactful, and the United States’ more than century-old antitrust law may not be up to the task of curbing the issues Congress raised with the big tech leaders.
In the past, Congress has embarrassed itself when questioning big tech. Such zingers include asking Zuckerberg how Facebook makes money, pressing Google about how an Apple iPhone works, and how to turn off ads for specific types of chocolate (that was a real question). So, it may be worth asking why Congress keeps pressing big tech with these hearings?
Big tech leaders like Zuckerberg also haven’t done themselves any favors. At a congressional hearing in 2018, Zuckerberg responded he didn’t know how Facebook operated 13 different times when pressed about specific details of his company’s operations. As many observers pointed out, either Zuckerberg was misleading lawmakers, or he has little idea how Facebook is run.
The New York Times points out that most congressional hearings are just a show, as “Members of Congress grandstand and witnesses generally try to be inoffensive or run out the clock.” Contrary to our favorite political TV show dramas, congressional hearings are an exercise in partisan talking points and attempted “gotchas.” So, while a hearing is roughly meaningless, it helps drive a competing narrative for Congress or those testifying.
Coming back to the antitrust laws, the George Mason Law Review commented that Congress and the United States Supreme Court has long struggled with antitrust regulation since passing the Sherman Act 130 years ago and pursued “muddle antitrust thinking” for decades.
It wasn’t until the 1970s, according to the review, when economists pushed the government to start using empirical evidence to balance the vague “big is bad” style of regulation to protect consumers and the benefits they receive from a competitive marketplace.
This is commonly referred to as the “consumer welfare standard” in economic circles and is sort of a Laffer Curve for antitrust. The government tries to stop monopolies and balance innovation for American consumers. Despite the five big tech companies being labeled as the “evil empire” by many, their impact on American life can hardly be ignored.
In the same breath that we may complain about big tech, we probably recently ordered something on Amazon Prime via the convenience of our iPhone. And we might have found that product on Instagram, Facebook, or a Google search.
So why does Congress keep bringing big tech in for hearings? To steal a line from Charlie Wilson’s War, “tradition mostly.”
Rep. Cicilline says he expects a report analyzing anti-competitive behaviors to be released in the next month or so after the July 29 hearings. The hearings and the report will likely lead to legislation regulating big tech. Unlike the massive innovation we’ve seen in big tech, the congressional playbook is largely built on a through-line from hearing, to report, to bill.
On a side note, Microsoft, one of the recent antitrust offenders in modern memory, may be getting into the mix, too. As the Trump administration finalizes a ban on popular social media app TikTok, Microsoft is reportedly looking to acquire the American operations for the most downloaded social media app of 2020.
Will federal regulation of Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple be the end of these big tech giants? Hardly. Regulation may take the pressure off Bezos and Zuckerberg or open the door to the next big tech platform. And most likely, we will have another congressional hearing to talk about it.
Evan Harris is the media relations and outreach manager for PRI.