Republicans and Democrats: In today’s hyper-partisan America, they rarely agree on anything. Still, though they had entirely different reasons for doing so, both sides found common ground on one issue. Big Tech is causing big trouble – and it has to stop. Wednesday, July 29, the CEOs of four American tech giants – Apple’s Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Google’s Sundar Pichai – joined the House Antitrust Subcommittee via video to offer their testimony and answer questions during what turned out to be a nearly six-hour hearing. The result? Congress remains ready to take a wrecking ball to the tech giants.
Monopolies are Anti-American
The Democrats went into the hearing believing the four tech giants used their wealth and power to eliminate competition and steal the private data of American citizens. Subcommittee Chair David Cicilline (D-RI) opened the hearing by laying out his concerns after a year of investigating the companies.
“Although these four corporations differ in important and meaningful ways, we’ve observed common patterns and competition problems over the course of this investigation.”
First amongst these issues is that each company acts as a “bottleneck for a key channel of distribution,” granting them both the incentive and ability to exploit that power for their own gain at the expense of customers and competitors alike. In a free market, customers can respond to abusive behavior by simply taking their business elsewhere – but Mr. Cicilline claims that there really isn’t anywhere else to go; these tech giants have choked out the competition.
And if you like your political machinations with a side of patriotism, you’ll love Rep. Cicilline’s end to his opening remarks:
“In closing, I’m confident that addressing the problems we see in these markets will lead to a stronger, more vibrant economy. Because concentrated economic power also leads to concentrated political power, this investigation also goes to the heart of whether we, as a people, govern ourselves or whether we let ourselves be governed by private monopolies. American democracy has always been at war against monopolies of power. Throughout our history, we’ve recognized that concentrated markets and concentrated political control are incompatible with democratic ideals.”
“Our founders would not bow before a king,” he concluded, “nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy.”
Democrats hammered each CEO with examples pulled from the millions of pages of documentation acquired over the year of investigation that showed – assuming they’re accurate – clear abuses of power by monopolies. These ranged from Zuckerberg’s email to Facebook employees explaining how he saw Instagram as a threat – one he allegedly dealt with by threatening to crush Instagram financially by copying its service unless the company sold out to Facebook – to interviews with small business owners complaining that Google stole their online content or that Amazon used their data to take over the market for itself.
Each of the CEOs denied, dissembled, or disregarded the accusations entirely. There was a lot of “I disagree with that characterization,” “I don’t remember that,” and, of course, giving answers that didn’t address the question at all. Naturally, the business leaders also made their appeals to patriotism by saying that only in America could they go from rags to riches quite as they did and claiming they encourage competition so everyone can flourish and enjoy the American dream.
Censorship and Election Meddling
In keeping with the patriotic theme each party in the hearing attempted to pull off, the Republicans also accused the tech giants of threatening American democracy – but in a different way entirely. For the GOP, it was all about censoring conservatives and supporting liberal candidates. Ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee Jim Jordan (R-OH) didn’t waste any time before he got to his list of grievances. “I’ll just cut to the chase,” he declared. “Big Tech’s out to get conservatives.” He then unloaded with a list of examples – most of which were from this year. Here’s the laundry list of accusations Rep. Jordan leveled at the four companies represented at the hearing:
- July 20, 2020: Google removes the homepages of Breitbart and The Daily Caller. Evidently, Google has censored Breitbart so much its referral traffic has declined 99%.
- June 16, 2020: Google threatens to demonetize and ban The Federalist.
- April 19, 2020: Google and YouTube announce a policy censoring content that conflicts with recommendations of the World Health Organization – an organization awash in scandal after appearing to cover for China regarding Coronavirus.
- June 29, 2020: Amazon bans President Trump’s account on Twitch after he raises concerns about defunding the police.
- June 4, 2020: Amazon bans a book critical of the Coronavirus lockdowns written by a conservative commentator.
- May 27, 2020: Amazon Smile won’t let you give to the Family Research Council and the Alliance Defense Fund, but you can give to Planned Parenthood.
- June 19, 2020: Facebook takes down a post from President Trump’s re-election campaign.
- November 1, 2018: Facebook silences a pro-life organization’s advertisement.
- May 19, 2016: Former Facebook employees admit the company routinely suppresses conservative views.
Rep. Jordan then went on to point out the really concerning fact about these examples: All but two are from 2020, an election year.
“Look, we all think the free market’s great, we think competition’s great, we love that these are American companies,“ he concluded. “But what’s not great is censoring people, censoring conservatives, and trying to influence elections.”
Five and a Half Hours Later …
So what did we get for the nearly six hours of congressional free for all, as Democrats and Republicans took turns hammering the Big Tech CEOs with the occasional break to yell at each other? More than you might see at first glance. The Democrats who showed up believing the tech companies were oppressing the little guy still feel that way, and the Republicans still believe their voices are being silenced online. And, of course, the representatives of these companies again shrug off any accusations of misbehavior. But that wasn’t the point. For those paying attention, there were three key lessons.
First, with really just the one embarrassing example from Ranking Member James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) – who demanded answers from Facebook’s Zuckerberg about Twitter’s censoring of Don Jr. – it’s clear that the subcommittee has done its homework.
From abortion to gun control and everywhere in between, you name a political issue, and there are dozens of elected politicians just chomping at the bit to make a law about it even though they routinely demonstrate that they know approximately nothing about the topic. After a year of investigating and over a million pages of documents examined, this subcommittee was well prepared for the hearing – better prepared than the CEOs, it seemed.
And since they listed off their accusations for the world to see – both those of censorship and election meddling from the right and those of unscrupulous business practices from the left – anyone who was paying attention now also knows of these alleged misdeeds. No opinions appeared to change throughout the hearing, as both Democrats and Republicans alike seem to have made up their minds well before the event. But it did serve as both a handy and entertaining way to expose the world to lesson two – the various alleged misdeeds collected by Congress. And as a bonus, if the multiple accusations are indeed true – and they certainly seem to be – then a rare thing has just happened. For once, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are right even though they’re championing different arguments!
Finally, we know that change is likely coming. In closing, Chairman Cicilline gave us a taste of what to expect:
“Today, we had the opportunity to hear from the decision makers at four of the most powerful companies in the world. This hearing has made one fact clear to me: These companies as exist today have monopoly power. Some need to be broken up; all need to be properly regulated and held accountable.”
With both the Democrats and Republicans coming together against these companies – and with the president tweeting out his support for action against Big Tech – it seems highly unlikely that the law will remain unchanged much longer.
Read more from James Fite.