What will happen when Big Tech goes to Washington?

27 Jul 2020

US Capitol. Image: © rrodrickbeiler/Stock.adobe.com

Will a day of virtual hearings in US Congress do anything to stop avaricious tech giants gobbling up entire industries? Not likely, writes Elaine Burke.

This week, the leaders of Apple, Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook will face questioning in the US Congress.

Originally scheduled to take place today, 27 July, the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee hearing was pushed to Wednesday following the death of representative John Lewis, who will lie in state at the Capitol Building, home of US Congress, this week.

And so Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos, Sundar Pichai and Mark Zuckerberg’s virtual visit to Washington, per Covid-19 guidelines, will be livestreamed on 29 July. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey will not be there, despite Republicans’ best efforts to engineer an opportunity to interrogate the platform attempting to moderate the US president.

Each of the Big Tech CEOs will face questions on antitrust issues in their respective businesses. It’s the culmination of a year-long investigation nearing its end, with a report expected to be published by late summer or early autumn.

‘With such a golden opportunity to grill these powerful tech leaders, we can expect that representatives may lose sight of the issues at hand and broach alternative lines of questioning’

Each company has its own antitrust complaints to answer to. For Apple, it’s the way the App Store exerts control on the broad app economy. Meanwhile, Google’s own app platform with its looser policies will be waiting in the wings while its rampant control of the online advertising market takes centre stage.

Facebook’s fight will be to defend its acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram while already owning the world’s largest social media platform by a long shot. And for Amazon – which has an all-encompassing underlying web presence that one tech journalist found impossible to avoid – it will be the treatment of third-party sellers on the Amazon marketplace that faces examination.

This hearing is an opportunity for the world to hear how the Big Tech CEOs justify their respective companies’ market dominance. It’s also an opportunity for potential Democratic vice-president candidate, Val Butler Demings, to show her strength in taking on Big Tech. What it’s not likely to be, however, is very effective.

Cook and Pichai will be prepared, professional and polite as they largely try to stay out of the headlines. Bezos is likely to receive praise for his market dominance thanks to its job creation – which we’ve seen the benefit of in Ireland, too. Zuckerberg is expected to take most of the heat, but little has changed since his last interrogation before Congress and not much is expected now at the brink of a presidential election amid a global pandemic.

With such a golden opportunity to grill these powerful tech leaders, we can expect that representatives may lose sight of the issues at hand and broach alternative lines of questioning. For example, how YouTube is used as a tool for radicalisation and child abuse. How Facebook is refusing to moderate some content on its platform, and failing to moderate the rest. Or Amazon’s mistreatment of workers who avail of the jobs the company creates, and its CEO’s branching into media ownership.

The House Judiciary Committee has been waiting for this opportunity since first requesting Big Tech to come to Washington last September. For Bezos in particular, it will his first time being questioned by representatives, and the alluring draw of this opportunity will likely drive them to distraction.

‘America’s antitrust acts are literally older than sliced bread’

By the time this investigation ends and its report is released, the US will be fully embroiled in its next presidential circus, and whichever ringmaster takes control will deeply affect what’s done with that information.

And what can Congress do without larger-scale reform? The antitrust law governing Big Tech not only long predates the existence of these companies and the technology that makes them possible, it predates the invention of television, electric traffic lights and antibiotics. America’s antitrust acts are literally older than sliced bread.

Of course, proceedings of the 21st century have set precedence, most notably the antitrust case against Microsoft for which a decision was reached in 2001. While Microsoft lost this battle, its punishment equated to a slap on the wrist and, since then, the company has found new routes to insurmountable power.

Microsoft is not even a player in Congress’s current investigation, so it may be no surprise that Slack has decided to take its antitrust battle against Microsoft to the European Union, where there’s a better track record of keeping Big Tech in check.

Slack has attempted to hold its own against the heft of Microsoft’s increasing competition in workplace communications, but some see the antitrust complaint as admission of defeat. A red flag waving to say this can’t be done, we simply can’t compete, the game is unfair.

Slack is a darling SaaS success story that enjoyed a billionaire-making IPO last year. If this promising company can’t compete with Big Tech, who can?

The fact is these mega-disruptors entered business with big ideas and small companies that had the opportunity to enter new industries and shake them up. And since then they have used their might to suppress the likes of it ever happening again.

With billions and even trillions and their disposal, tech’s big brands can easily continue to hoover up entire industries, acquiring or destroying any alternatives that dare face off against them. All until something is done to rein it in.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.