Members of a House subcommittee downloaded their frustrations on the CEOs of America’s Big Four tech giants during a heated hearing, accusing them of unfairly stifling competition.
However, experts disagree on whether the hearing was a “political show” without any significant impact, or if the scrutiny could steer Congress to recommend regulatory changes.
Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sundar Pichai of Google parent Alphabet underwent more than five hours of grueling questions from House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee members.
The virtual hearing was the culmination of congressional investigations into the business practices of the Big Four and whether they violate antitrust laws. The subcommittee and its staff accumulated 1.3 million documents, collected from the companies and third-party sources; its conclusions are expected to be released later this year.
Resentments over Big Tech brought a rare spirit of bipartisanship to Capitol Hill as members of both parties called out the companies’ practices.
In his opening statement, subcommittee Chairman Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) set the tone:
“Many of the practices used by these companies have harmful economic effects. They discourage entrepreneurship, destroy jobs, hike costs and degrade quality,” he said. “Simply put: They have too much power. This power staves off new forms of competition, creativity and innovation.
“Our founders would not bow before a king. Nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy.”
Democratic lawmakers criticized the tech companies for buying start-ups to shut them down and for unfairly using their data to kill off competitors, while Republicans questioned whether the platforms were censoring conservative viewpoints and undermining democracy.
“We all think the free market is great. We think competition is great. We love the fact that these are American companies,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.
“But what’s not great is censoring people, censoring [conservatives] and trying to impact elections. And if it doesn’t end, there has to be consequences.”
Cicilline claimed Google had “stolen content to build your own business,” citing its practice of gathering and displaying information at the top of users’ search results.
“Today, we support 1.4 million small businesses supporting over $385 billion in their core economic activity,” Pichai responded. “We see many businesses thrive, particularly even during the pandemic.”
Luther Lowe, senior vice president for public policy at Yelp, said he “was pleasantly surprised” at the direction of the hearing. Google has been accused of stealing restaurant reviews from Yelp, which publishes crowd-sourced reviews about businesses.
“I thought there was a lot of bipartisan energy focused on strong substantive questions for Google and it was surprising to see how poorly prepared Sundar Pichai was,” Lowe told InsideSources. “When it comes to antitrust, a lot of Congress’ power is derived from conducting oversight and sending signals and messages to enforcement agencies, who are the ones who actually carry out enforcement actions. And the message that this hearing sent to enforcement agencies… was there should be a lot more enforcement.”
When asked about whether he saw an issue with anti-competitiveness, Lowe responded: “Absolutely.”
“Google is steering an incredible amount of traffic to its own products to the detriment of consumer welfare,” he said. “The reason they can do that is because it is a monopoly.”
Others, however, noted that antitrust issues got short shrift in the hearing.
“This was an antitrust investigation hearing, but I would say the amount of purely antitrust questions and issues were a fairly small portion of the hearing,” Brent Skorup, a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University told InsideSources. “It was more about using the focus of national media to make powerful statements to supporters and constituents about what members think about these issues.”
Skorup said that for those who follow tech and regulation there weren’t “a ton of surprises.”
“I’m glad they had the hearing and brought the scrutiny, but I haven’t seen the ‘smoking gun’ that many people believe is out there.”
Jeffrey Westling, a technology and innovation resident fellow at the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank, agreed that the focus of the hearing went beyond its antitrust parameters.
“It has not really been productive in terms of actually analyzing competitive harms and looking at whether there are actually antitrust cases against some of these companies,” Westling told InsideSources. “Then we see members [of Congress] go out and put on a political show and try to broad paint a picture that these companies are big and therefore they’re bad and that is really not a productive discussion.”
Skorup, however, said there was a bipartisan effort to quell the immense power of the four companies.
“If there is any consensus, I think that might be it,” he said. “These are some of the largest companies ever created and that obviously brings some social power but also economic power and I think everyone in the end would agree on that, although there would be a lot of disagreement about what the remedy should be.”