Four of the nation’s most powerful CEOs are beaming into a Capitol Hill hearing at noon Wednesday to face one major question: Are their companies too big and powerful for America’s good?
The virtual testimony marks the first joint congressional appearance by Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google and its parent company Alphabet. It comes at a time of rising legal jeopardy for the major tech companies, who are the subject of antitrust and consumer-protection probes in Washington, multiple U.S. states and Europe — but also amid questions about whether Congress can provide a counterweight to the wealth and power of Silicon Valley.
More than a year of investigation by the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee has yielded a host of documents about a litany of criticisms, any of which could come up during Wednesday’s hours of questioning. Those include Google’s and Facebook’s dominance over the online ad market, Apple’s efforts to compete with rivals on its own App Store, and questions about whether Amazon misled Congress about how it uses data it compiles from its third-party sellers.
Lawmakers will no doubt raise other issues as well. Republicans in particular have pushed for answers on what they call a pattern of anti-conservative bias on social media, a charge Democrats dismiss as a baseless distraction. The executives, meanwhile, are touting their companies as examples of American-style innovation and openness, and a bulwark against Chinese-owned competitors like TikTok.
Check back for live video and updates from today’s hearing.
— The Tech CEOs’ opening statements— How to watch the CEOs’ collision with Congress— Congress has a lot to prove— Republicans tear into panel’s Democrats on eve of major tech hearing— Why Amazon may have the most to lose— Zuckerberg: Facebook has ‘more to do’ on fighting disinformation— Bezos: The world needs giant companies too
TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer slammed Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday ahead of Wednesday’s high-stakes congressional hearing, where the tech mogul is expected to picture Chinese tech corporations as a threat.
“Let’s focus our energies on fair and open competition in service of our consumers, rather than maligning attacks by our competitor — namely Facebook — disguised as patriotism and designed to put an end to our very presence in the U.S.,” Mayer said in a statement.
Zuckerberg depicted Facebook in his prepared statement for the hearing as a “proudly American company.”
U.S. officials have recently floated a ban on TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance. If the company were to leave the U.S. market, American advertisers would be left with less choice, Mayer argued.
The newly appointed CEO, who comes from Disney, also said tech companies should disclose their algorithms, moderation policies and data flows to regulators. “We will not wait for regulation to come, but instead TikTok has taken the first step by launching a Transparency and Accountability Center for moderation and data practices,” he explained.
“TikTok has become the latest target, but we are not the enemy,” Mayer said.— Laura Kayali
How to watch the tech CEOs’ collision with Congress
Two global power centers are set to clash Wednesday as the CEOs of tech giants Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook testify before House lawmakers on allegations their companies are harming consumers by unfairly stifling the competition.
The hearing marks the first time the four tech moguls — whose companies are roughly worth a combined $5 trillion — have jointly testified before Congress, and it’s the first congressional outing ever for Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person. The session also arrives as scrutiny of the behemoths is surging across the globe, including an expected Justice Department antitrust case against Google and the recent launch of two European probes of potential anticompetitive behavior by Apple.
But whether Wednesday’s showdown lives up to its historic billing may depend on a host of factors: The lawmakers could veer far from the antitrust script, into Democrats’ concerns about online hate speech or GOP accusations of anti-conservative bias. Some Republicans have already accused Democrats of harboring “preconceived conclusions” in favor of breaking up the tech giants, adding to the dangers of a partisan food fight breaking out.
Even the format of the questioning — four elite CEOs, all appearing by videoconference because of the coronavirus pandemic — could make it harder for the members to land a glove on the companies’ varied issues, ranging from Google’s and Facebook’s command of digital ad revenue to Apple’s control of its App Store and questions about whether Amazon misled Congress.
Here’s what to expect as Bezos, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple’s Tim Cook and Google’s Sundar Pichai testify before the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee — and the potential surprises that may await:
For Bezos: Did Amazon lie to Congress last year?
House lawmakers are expected to grill Bezos about whether a company lawyer misled the Judiciary Committee last summer by testifying that Amazon doesn’t use the data it collects from third-party vendors to launch competing products on its platform.
The Wall Street Journal subsequently reported that Amazon employees did in fact use the sellers’ data to inform the company’s own products. The revelation prompted Judiciary leaders to raise the specter of referring Amazon to prosecutors for perjury charges, while Amazon disputed the accuracy of the Journal’s account and said it did not offer “intentionally misleading” testimony. Amazon also promised to conduct an internal investigation but hasn’t offered any public updates on its progress.
Now that Bezos is appearing before them, some lawmakers say they plan to push him to account for the discrepancy.
“I do have concerns about testimony that was given to me under oath that I will be following up on from the last hearing,” said subcommittee member Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who questioned Amazon associate general counsel Nate Sutton about the practice at a hearing last July.
Meanwhile, the Journal last week raised similar questions about Amazon’s treatment of tech startups that had sought investments from the company’s venture capital fund.
For Zuckerberg: Facebook’s thirst for growth
Facebook’s past acquisitions of former rivals WhatsApp and Instagram have drawn significant attention on Capitol Hill in recent years. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) told POLITICO last year that “there ought to have been more review” of the deals, which had won approval from regulators during the Obama administration. Others, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), have called for regulators to break up Facebook and have singled out those mergers as targets for rolling back.
The committee has also demanded answers from Facebook on whether it devotes resources to identifying and tracking promising startups. Lawmakers have expressed concern that Facebook and the other giants are uniquely positioned to duplicate, acquire or otherwise drive out up-and-coming rivals.
The company’s massive trove of user data is also set to draw scrutiny. Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), vice chair of the antitrust subcommittee, said he hopes to press the company about whether the massive amounts of personal information it collects from more than 2 billion users makes it too difficult for competitors to keep up.
“There’s a real fear that no other competitor could ever successfully launch a social media platform because it could never match Facebook’s troves of data, which, given their record, it’s a serious threat to users,” he told POLITICO.
For Pichai: Google’s dominance of digital ads and search
Google is the world’s No. 1 player in the $162.3 billion market for online display ads, in part because it runs the most dominant search engine. Now it’s facing rising scrutiny from state and federal regulators on both issues, which could become the subject of the DOJ’s expected antitrust suit.
Critics of the company have long accused it of favoring its own services in search, to the detriment of its competitors and consumers looking for maps, videos or other services that Google also provides. Cicilline has separately voiced concern that the company’s ability to hoover up online ad revenue has harmed smaller businesses, including news outlets. (Google and Facebook together account for a majority of the online ad revenue in the U.S.)
The committee has also accused the company of being less than forthright in its past testimony, including on questions such as what percentage of searches on the company’s engine lead to website referrals not on Google.
Google has separately been a frequent target of Republican allegations of anti-conservative bias on its video sharing platform YouTube, a topic that is expected to come up again at Monday’s hearing. Google and other major tech platforms deny those charges. Democrats, meanwhile, have taken issue with the company’s handling of hate speech and misinformation on YouTube.
For Cook: Apple’s App Store under the microscope
Apple, which to date hasn’t drawn the same level of congressional scrutiny as the other companies testifying, is now facing a fresh investigation in Europe over whether its popular App Store violates the EU’s competition rules. Competitors, publishers and app-makers have taken issue with Apple’s 30 percent cut of app sales and subscriptions in the App Store.
State and federal regulators in the U.S. have also begun taking initial steps toward an antitrust investigation into those practices, POLITICO reported last month.
And key lawmakers have torn into Apple for its handling of the App Store.
“Because of the market power that Apple has, it is charging exorbitant rents — highway robbery, basically — bullying people to pay 30 percent or denying access to their market,” Cicilline told The Verge in June. “It’s crushing small developers who simply can’t survive with those kinds of payments. If there were real competition in this marketplace, this wouldn’t happen.”
For the House members: Can they avoid a free-for-all?
Democratic lawmakers, committee aides and advocacy groups say they expect the hearing to stay on track more than other past high-profile hearings with big tech CEOs have done.
When Zuckerberg testified before Congress for the first time in 2018 at the height of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, for example, he fielded questions on everything from misinformation to competition, hate speech, privacy and allegations of anti-conservative bias on social media.
This time, Wednesday’s hearing is not a one-off event — it’s the subcommittee’s sixth hearing as part of its more-than-yearlong investigation into Silicon Valley’s antitrust problems. That means lawmakers have had an unusual amount of preparation, said Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit that advocates against market concentration.
“The subcommittee members have been deeply involved in this investigation and many of them have a fine-grained understanding of the business models of these corporations,” said Mitchell, a prominent big tech critic who testified before the committee last year. “It prevents things from veering off into all kinds of different directions.”
But others expect that the lawmakers will once again wander off topic.
“The discussion will go well beyond antitrust,” said Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel of tech trade group NetChoice, which counts Facebook, Google and Amazon as members. “It will go into issues of election interference, or conservative bias, or any of the other issues de jour on which we like to saddle tech,” he said.
Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), one of the lawmakers who will be questioning the CEOs, told POLITICO he’s expecting “a free for all” in question topics.
What about partisan squabbles?
The Democratic-led panel’s investigation into tech and antitrust has mainly boasted bipartisan buy-in from the get-go, as Republican lawmakers have acknowledged.
“I’m very impressed with the bipartisan and cooperative nature of the process that we are going through,” Buck said during an interview last week.
But partisan divides have erupted too. In February, for example, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee accused Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) of harboring “pre-conceived conclusions that America’s large tech companies are inherently bad,” and added: “America’s leaders should not punish tech companies simply because those companies have succeeded.”
And more recent disputes have emerged between Democrats and Republicans on how to handle Wednesday’s hearing.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who took over as the top Republican on House Judiciary well into the committee’s investigation, has criticized Democrats for not opening the hearing up to the full committee, which he said would allow questions on a wider range of members’ tech concerns. Jordan has also raised the possibility that Republicans will delve into alleged political bias — even demanding that the hearing include Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, whose company has tangled with President Donald Trump’s campaign over fact-checking but hasn’t posed any major antitrust concerns.
The virtual format could shape the outcome
All four tech CEOs will testify together through an online videoconference, while Judiciary lawmakers will attend both virtually and in-person as part of a “hybrid” format, senior Judiciary aides told reporters on Thursday.
Groups critical of the tech giants had pushed for the subcommittee to make the four CEOs testify individually instead of as a single group, expressing concern that Wednesday’s format will make it harder to lawmakers to ask detailed questions and make it easier for the executives to dodge.
Having the CEOs testify jointly instead of on separate panels could cut down on the session’s length. But even so, if past big tech hearings are any indication, the CEOs should be ready for a protracted siege.
The hearing also marks one of the highest profile virtual sessions of the coronavirus era, which has forced Congress to shift much of its regular business online. The virtual hearing is likely to test the limits of its format, with the possibility of technical snafus, cross talk, unmuted microphones and other glitches that could dilute the substance.— Cristiano Lima