Following the more than five-hour grilling of tech CEOs from Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple underwent last week by the House Judiciary subcommittee, it’s easy to get lost in the subplots.
There was a brief shouting match about masks. A break was needed to establish why WebEx wasn’t working for Apple’s Tim Cook. Google’s Sundar Pichai had to explain to Rep. Greg Steube why his campaign emails were going into his father’s spam folder. And, of course, there was a follow-up tweet from Trump.
Also reported was how the questions varied greatly, often along partisan lines. During the anti-trust hearing, Republicans were more likely to talk about political bias; some seeking reassurances that big tech wouldn’t interfere with the upcoming election and another accusing them of hiding conservative websites, only to put them back higher on the search ranking days later.
While interesting, if you stop there, you’d miss the real story. Different complaints were aired but, notably, no one defended the tech companies.
The Democrats did their homework. Having prepped for a year beforehand, the committee was ready with evidence in the form of emails and even pre-recorded testimony – so that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos could (paraphrasing) “finally listen to the voice of a small business owner he had ignored for so long.” They pressed for responses and showed that they are coming for the disparate but seemingly provable anti-competitive behaviour of the four big tech companies.
Values were the other central focus of the hearings. This was as predictable as some element of the mask or no-mask controversy in coming up. In opening statements, Bezos and Pichai both tried to sell the American success story. This didn’t seem to help, as Big Tech was then brought into the culture war and questioned on whether its leaders would support police forces or bow to their (unstated liberal) employees on which contracts they would take. There were also (unsurprisingly) questions about their role in China.
When compared to the line of questioning seen across the pond here in the UK, we see a similar story emerging. In 2018, the DCMS committee questioned representatives from Google, Facebook and Twitter on fake news similar to earlier Congressional hearings. More recently, there have been further calls from Parliament to tackle misinformation and ensure powerful companies are held to account. Following the Furman Review and the CMA market study on large tech companies market dominance, it will be interesting to see if the UK again follows suit.
Many thought that pandemic recovery and tech’s role would reprieve large brands from the techlash. This recent hearing showed that political forces are starting to move against big tech again. For the moment, however, they’re coming from completely different angles.
The November elections might make the path to regulating big tech clearer. ‘Is it American to exploit a monopoly?’ is a question we may well soon be hearing a lot.