Big Tech CEOs Put Under the Microscope at Unprecedented Hearing


They command corporations with millions or even billions of customers and a combined value greater than the entire German economy.

One of them is the world’s richest individual; another is the fourth-ranked billionaire.

Their industry has transformed society, linked people around the globe, mined and commercialized users’ personal data, and infuriated critics on both the left and right over speech.

Now Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai and Tim Cook of Apple will answer for their companies’ practices before Congress for the first time as a group.

It will be Bezos’ first-ever appearance before Congress.

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The House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust is capping its yearlong investigation of big tech’s market dominance with Wednesday’s teleconferenced hearing spotlighting the four CEOs.

“It’s mostly theater. There are few genuine facts left to gather,” according to Daniel Crane, a law professor at the University of Michigan who focuses on antitrust.

Still, the CEOs’ approaches to the questioning are important, Crane notes.

“Are they willing to admit that there’s a problem with big tech’s market power, or is it denial mode? Will they recommend innovative private solutions, or retreat into defending themselves as champions of consumer interests who play it fair?”

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The bipartisan probe is the first such congressional review of an industry that for over a decade has enjoyed haloed status and a light touch from federal regulators.

Critics question whether the companies stifle competition and innovation and pose a danger to society.

The Judiciary panel collected testimony from mid-level executives of the four firms, competitors and legal experts, and pored over more than a million internal documents from the companies.

A key question: whether existing competition policies and century-old antitrust laws are adequate for overseeing the tech giants, or if new legislation and more funding for enforcement are needed.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, has called the four companies monopolies, although he says breaking them up should be a last resort.

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The tech companies now face legal and political offensives on multiplying fronts, from Congress, the Trump administration, federal and state regulators and European watchdogs.

The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission have been investigating the four companies’ practices, including the earlier acquisitions of smaller firms.

Facebook’s fiercest critics in Congress, including liberal Democrat Sen. Elizabeth Warren and conservative Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, have put breaking up big tech companies on the table.

Short of breakup, the scrutiny of the companies across the U.S. and abroad points toward possible new restrictions on their power.

Bezos, the world’s richest individual presiding over an e-commerce empire, initially declined to testify unless he could appear with the other CEOs.

He’ll likely face questioning over a Wall Street Journal report that found Amazon employees used sensitive and confidential data collected from sellers on its online marketplace to develop competing products.

Amazon says it doesn’t believe the Journal allegations are accurate, but has started an internal investigation.

Lawmakers from both parties suggested Amazon’s earlier statements could be misleading and might even constitute perjury.

Zuckerberg is a Capitol Hill pro by this point. He endured over five hours of grilling last fall by another House committee on hate speech, privacy, misinformation and Facebook’s widely-criticized plan for a new digital currency.

He also met privately with key lawmakers and with President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly criticized the tech companies.

Facebook has recently drawn fire for refusing to suppress conservative voices on its platform. Zuckerberg has said the company aims to allow as much free expression as possible unless it causes imminent risk of specific harms or damage.

Pichai faced his own congressional interrogation in 2018 over online privacy and data protection, the danger of digital monopolies, alleged bias against conservative viewpoints and censorship by China. He avoided the yes or no answers that lawmakers demanded.

EU regulators already have concluded that Google manipulated its search engine to gain an unfair advantage over other online shopping sites and fined the company, whose parent is Alphabet Inc., a record $2.7 billion. Google has disputed the findings and is appealing.

Attorneys general from both parties in 50 states and territories, led by Texas, launched an antitrust investigation of Google in September, focused on its online advertising business.

Apple, whose iPhone is the third-largest seller in the world, faces EU investigations over the fees charged by its App Store and technical limitations that allegedly shut out competitors.

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