November 30, 2020

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Future Technology

Tech Tent: Congressman, that’s a great question!

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Reuters

It was perhaps the biggest collection of wealth and power ever gathered on one video call – and I’m not talking about the members of the House Judiciary Committee.

In this week’s Tech Tent podcast, I ask whether the Congressional hearing with the tech titans has done anything to curb the power of these immensely wealthy businesses.

  • Listen to the latest Tech Tent podcast on BBC Sounds
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Apple’s Tim Cook, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Google’s Sundar Pichai and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg are all accustomed to speaking without interruption, with their colleagues hanging on their every word.

But on Wednesday, each of them had to get used to being cut off, sometimes quite abruptly in mid-flow by congressmen and women impatient to get answers to questions about the abuse of market power within their allotted five minutes.

Mark Zuckerberg’s tactic of starting every answer by saying: “Congressman, that’s a great question” or “Congresswoman, thanks for the opportunity” seemed to irritate the lawmakers, perhaps understandably.

The Facebook boss’s attempt to prevaricate was met with a bullish response from the committee chairman, New York Democrat Jerry Nadler, when he asked whether the company had grown by simply buying up competing start-ups, such as Instagram.

“Yes or no?” he and his colleagues kept demanding of Zuckerberg, and the other chief executives.

When Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon quoted a report that Jeff Bezos had talked of treating business partners like a cheetah in pursuit of a sickly gazelle, the Amazon boss said he had no memory of that, and started to talk about his only focus being on customers.

Within seconds, the congresswoman was talking over him, pointing out that her time was running out and she needed an answer.

Like a number of his Republican colleagues, Congressman Jim Jordan, of Ohio, ignored anti-trust issues to press the tech leaders on allegations that their companies were biased against conservatives.

Sighs of relief

Sundar Pichai seemed taken aback when asked to guarantee that Google would not manipulate its technology to favour Joe Biden in the forthcoming election.

He started talking about how conservatives had more access to information from the search engine than ever, before being interrupted and then finally stumbling through a promise that Google would conduct itself in a neutral way.

By the end, you could almost hear the sighs of relief from the mighty foursome that the barrage of hostile questions was over.

Whether the Democrats or the Republicans prevail in November’s elections, surely there are hard times ahead?

Tougher regulation, even the threat of break-ups from Joe Biden, or Donald Trump’s revenge on his perceived social-media enemies, perhaps?

Not according to the stock market.

The day after the hearing, the four tech giants all posted quarterly results – and they had all shown remarkable resilience in the face of the pandemic.

“Breathtaking”, was how one analyst described Apple’s results. Amazon’s 40% growth in revenues was “staggering”, said another. Tech shares raced to new record highs as the markets opened on Friday.

Now, you might think this new evidence of the wealth and power of these companies would make the politicians even more determined to clip their wings.

Don’t bet on it.

Both Republicans and Democrats are increasingly focused on the trade war with China. Whatever the faults of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, they are American success stories – and damaging them at this sensitive time may be seen as unpatriotic.

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