giants Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon to face Congress - 29th July 2020
is a dangerous word in journalism, but this really hasn't happened before.
Wednesday, four of the biggest names in tech will give evidence to members of
the US Congress.
Zuckerberg (Facebook), Sundar Pichai (Google), Tim Cook (Apple) and Jeff Bezos
(Amazon) will all be grilled.
Bezos - the world's richest man - has never testified before either house. They
have never all been quizzed together.
these tech bosses do, how they stand up to scrutiny, could be a defining moment
in their future relationship with government.
to the interrogation will be whether these tech giants are simply too big.
Covid pandemic has put this into sharp focus. Where other companies have struggled,
Big Tech companies have thrived. Together they are now worth $5tn dollars. It's
led to accusations that - just like the banks - they are simply too big to fail.
number of complaints levelled at these companies are so numerous they are too
many to name individually here.
Bezos posted his opening statement to Congress on Tuesday.
Amazon, customer obsession has made us what we are, and allowed us to do ever
greater things," he says.
know what Amazon could do when we were 10 people. I know what we could do when
we were 1,000 people, and when we were 10,000 people. And I know what we can do
today when we're nearly a million."
believe Amazon should be scrutinized," he adds. "We should scrutinize
all large institutions, whether they're companies, government agencies, or non-profits.
Our responsibility is to make sure we pass such scrutiny with flying colours."
general theme though is that these companies don't just run services - they own
the internet's utilities. The charge is that they use that commanding position
unfairly at the expense of others.
one of the criticisms against Amazon, for example, that it promotes its own products
over others on its Amazon marketplace.
Apple charging a 30% cut on the money generated from apps that use the App Store.
complaint from app makers: where else do we go to sell our apps? Apple and Google
(which respectively own iOS and Android, the operating systems of almost all the
world's smartphones) control the market, and so control who gets to play and who
doesn't. And they of course get to set the charges.
too, with its dominant search engine, has been accused (and fined) before, for
burying competitor searches. Once again, the accusation is that no one company
should have such a commanding position in an essential part of our internet.
there are general criticisms that can be levelled at all the tech giants too.
For example the alleged Copy/Acquire/Kill strategies that all four are accused
others' ideas, buy a company that threatens you - and even potentially kill it
off. Is this just shrewd, albeit ruthless business? Or is this Big Tech flexing
its muscle unfairly?
why this has been such a difficult area to police. Traditionally, anti-competition
law - in this case "anti-trust" law - has been focused on consumer pricing.
a typical monopoly or cartel, there's a simple test. Are consumers paying more
because of a lack of competition?
US "trusts" of the early 20th Century - from which the anti-trust legislation
derives its name - were found to be driving up prices. Companies like Standard
Oil and railway companies used their dominant position to hurt consumers.
much harder to prove with these tech companies.
example Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp are free. Amazon often drives down prices
to beat competition. Google's search engine is free. YouTube - owned by Google
- is free. And apps on iPhones can often be downloaded for free.
what's the problem?
is the heart of the argument. Critics say that these companies hurt consumers
in a more subtle way, killing off smaller companies and strangling other businesses.
The charge is that they are in fact damaging the economy.
what legislators are looking to examine.
campaigners have already lost one battle before the hearing even begins. They
wanted to have the tech bosses grilled one by one.
want to leave as little room as possible for them to hide behind each other,"
Sarah Miller, from the American Economics Liberties Project, told me last week.
that's not going to happen. They'll be questioned together and the hearing will
- perhaps aptly - be virtual.
are also worries that members of Congress will use the occasion to grandstand
- to strut and preen - rather than asking the more difficult technical questions
that might catch them out.
topic questions are also likely - particularly for Mark Zuckerberg. For example,
Facebook is currently the focus of an advertising boycott. It's accused of being
too slow in removing racist and hateful content, and that could well be a line
of course, ahead of the US elections, Facebook should expect incoming from both
Republican and Democratic members of Congress. Democrats are generally concerned
about far-right content on the platform, Republicans that the company is structurally
left-wing. And of course there are still concerns of foreign interference.
China to come up too - and for it to be brought up by the tech bosses. With companies
like TikTok and Huawei attracting the ire of the Trump administration, one defence
will go something like: "Break us up, overregulate us, and you give Chinese
tech companies more power."
to prize the four away from their scripts is going to be the toughest job. That
worked most effectively during Mr Zuckerberg's interrogation on Capitol Hill in
2018. But that's harder said than done.
has a big opportunity here. The chance to really cross-examine these powerful
men doesn't come often, and the evidence they give could shape their future relationship
with government and their customers.
whatever happens on Wednesday, this won't be end of the story. Earlier this week,
the Senate Judiciary Committee's anti-trust panel said it would hold a hearing
in September to discuss Google's dominance in online advertising.