Most tech titans have been taken aback by this approach. Suddenly, they were “unfamiliar with the details” (but would of course be happy to “chat” with the representative’s office on the matter). After years of praise for their obscene wealth, sharp intelligence, determination, and mastery of detail, they were now live on television, appearing defensive, evasive, and devious.
The two worst in this regard are Mark Zuckerberg, boss of Facebook, and Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google. It wasn’t entirely a coincidence since they practice the most toxic business model in the tech industry – what we now call surveillance capitalism. But sometimes even Amazon boss Jeff Bezos was not haunted by graphic evidence of how his business mistreated those trying to make a living in his business market. Yet at least he had the grace to admit that some of the abuse of power he faced from the questioners were wrong.
Apple’s Tim Cook had the easier ride, although his defense of the company’s monopolistic behavior in controlling its App Store was less than convincing. When asked what would prevent the company from increasing the 30% commission it charges developers, he simply responded piously that Apple had not increased it since the store launched.
The contrast between the Democrats’ forensic approach on the subcommittee and that of their Republican colleagues was stark; most of the latter were obsessed with just outrage about technology platforms “censoring” conservative voices. To anyone who’s spent time on social media, this seemed like a delusion – until it was remembered that these politicians were, on the whole, Trumpists, and therefore not very interested in the evidence.
The full title of the body holding the hearing is “House of Representatives Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law”. The purpose of his investigation of the tech giants is to assess whether the antitrust – competition – laws existing in the United States are still fit for purpose. Republican members seemed convinced they were. I suspect the Democrats disagree, for two good reasons. The first is that while the existing laws can cope with the anti-competitive antics of the four companies, they are obsolete in their conceptions of “consumer harm” due to the monopolistic behavior of companies that do not directly charge for their services.
The other is that existing laws have nothing to say about “societal” harm – like undermining democratic elections or polluting the public sphere. In this context, the audience’s most intriguing sight was the young woman standing, properly masked, behind the president. She was Lina Khan, whose article on the “Amazon Antitrust Paradox” published in the Yale Legal Journal in January 2017, triggered a comprehensive review of the adequacy of antitrust law in the digital age. I guess she was the mastermind behind the subcommittee investigation. And, boy, it shows.