March 2, 2024

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Historic antitrust hearing kicks off, with Big Tech on the hot seat

A historic antitrust hearing kicked off early Wednesday afternoon, with the CEOs of Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google parent Alphabet appearing before a House Judiciary subcommittee to defend the business practices of their companies.

The hearing, held virtually amid the coronavirus outbreak, is the culmination of a 13-month investigation by the House antitrust subcommittee into Big Tech’s dominance. The four CEOs  — Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook and Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai — are speaking before Congress for the first time as a group, and Bezos is attending his first ever public hearing. A report from the committee, which will synthesize the results of six hearings and more than 1.3 million documents, was delayed due to the pandemic but is expected sometime this year. 

While each CEO is likely to face different kinds of questions, their opening remarks, which were published Tuesday night, provide strikingly similar defenses of their organizations. The CEOs said their companies face many competitors, create American jobs and benefit small businesses and consumers.

Bezos offered a direct defense to massive companies, saying they are uniquely able to do big, complex tasks. “I don’t care how good an entrepreneur you are,” he wrote, “you’re not going to build an all-fiber Boeing 787 in your garage.”

And even with Facebook’s current dominance, Zuckerberg wrote that he expects another service will eventually become more popular. “I’ve long believed that the nature of our industry is that someday a product will replace Facebook,” he said. “I want us to be the ones that build it, because if we don’t, someone else will.”

The event, delayed by about an hour because an earlier hearing ran long, is a rare public interrogation of Big Tech’s most influential leaders at a point of great upheaval. The pandemic has changed how many Americans live, forcing them to lean on the companies to work and shop from home, as well as communicate with loved ones. The hearing will likely touch on Big Tech’s ability to shape public opinion, a topic that has taken on new urgency with a contentious presidential election roughly three months away and continued protests over racial injustice. 

Chaired by Democrat David Cicilline of Rhode Island, the committee worries the four companies have become so powerful that they can stifle competition and prevent innovation by acquiring or copying rivals. The committee could recommend new regulations of Big Tech or, in an unlikely outcome, breaking up the companies.

The committee isn’t alone in its concerns. President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly claimed Silicon Valley stifles conservative voices, tweeted that he would take action to curb Big Tech’s power if Congress didn’t.

“If Congress doesn’t bring fairness to Big Tech, which they should have done years ago, I will do it myself with Executive Orders,” Trump tweeted.

Trump has already issued an executive that is widely seen to target Twitter, which isn’t testifying at the hearing, and threatened to ban TikTok, a popular Chinese video app. (On Wednesday, Steve Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, said that TikTok was under a national security review.)

By any measure, the power of the four companies, which are worth roughly $5 trillion combined, is vast. Facebook, the world’s largest social network, has roughly the same number of users as the populations of the two largest countries, China and India, combined. Amazon controls 38% of US online sales, more than six times the size of Walmart’s US web business, its nearest competitor. Apple’s App Store is the only way for most developers to get their software onto the huge iPhone and iPad customer base, and Apple takes a cut of those installations. Google has a lock on search, processing about 90% of all web searches around the world.

The CEOs are expected to address separate antitrust concerns. With Facebook, regulators are looking into the company’s acquisitions of competitors like Instagram and WhatsApp. For Amazon, Congress has largely focused on the company’s private-label business, which sells Amazon brands of clothing, food and diapers. Apple has seen scrutiny over the cut it takes from software developers on its app store. For Google, regulators are focused mainly on the search giant’s dominance in digital advertising.

The tech leaders and their companies also represent staggering personal wealth. Bezos is the world’s richest man with a personal fortune estimated at $181 billion. Zuckerberg is the fourth wealthiest, with $86 billion. Though not testifying, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are $68 and $66 billion each.

Here is CNET’s original story on how to watch the hearing:

The heads of several of the largest tech companies in the US are heading to Congress to testify before the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee on Wednesday. Scheduled to appear are Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

The event was slated to start at at 9 a.m. PT/noon ET, but was delayed for an hour to 10 a.m. PT/1 p.m. ET, according to the House Judiciary. The Washington Post reported that the delay was caused by a prior hearing going over time.

Just before the hearing was about to start, President Trump, who has often complained about alleged anti-conservative bias by social media, weighed in on Twitter, saying: “If Congress doesn’t bring fairness to Big Tech, which they should have done years ago, I will do it myself with Executive Orders.”

The hearing had already been postponed two days so that Washington could mourn John Lewis, a Democratic representative and civil rights leader, who died July 17 of pancreatic cancer. 

At issue in the hearing is the subcommittee’s “ongoing investigation of competition in the digital marketplace.” All of the companies have remarkable influence over their markets, and each is reportedly facing a probe by the Justice Department or a coalition of state attorneys general. 

“Since last June, the subcommittee has been investigating the dominance of a small number of digital platforms and the adequacy of existing antitrust laws and enforcement,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler and Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline said in a joint statement. 

“Given the central role these corporations play in the lives of the American people, it is critical that their CEOs are forthcoming. As we have said from the start, their testimony is essential for us to complete this investigation.”

All four executives began laying out their respective antitrust defenses Tuesday evening, with each publishing their opening remarks. You can read the opening statements here

With just hours to go until the hearing begins, here’s how you can follow along. 

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Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google to be grilled by Congress


When is the hearing? 

The hearing was set for Wednesday, July 29, at 9 a.m. PT/noon ET, but was delayed by an hour. It’s unclear how long the proceedings will last.

Where is the hearing taking place? 

The hearing is currently scheduled to take place at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC.

Will the executives appear in person? 

In announcing the hearing, the accompanying press release noted that “under current House rules, witnesses and members are allowed to appear virtually.” Given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the executives are expected to appear remotely.

How can I watch? 

You can watch it right here at the top of this story. In addition, the House Judiciary will stream the hearing on its YouTube channel, and C-SPAN will broadcast the hearing on its cable channel. The Washington Post, which is owned by Bezos, is also currently reporting live on YouTube about the event.

Why does it matter? 

Regardless of what you do online, you’re probably affected by at least one or more of these companies in a fairly major way. 

Apple and Google operate the two most popular mobile operating systems in the world and respectively control iOS’ Apple’s App Store and Android’s Google Play Store. 

Logos of Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook

Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple are all facing antitrust concerns. 

Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images

Apple has faced increasing antitrust concerns in recent months about its App Store practices, with the European Union recently launching an investigation into the digital store and the US Department of Justice rumored to be weighing similar action. 

Amazon has its namesake mammoth e-commerce presence and manufactures its own goods, some of which compete with those from other sellers in its online store. This potential additional data that Amazon has access to came under fire after a Wall Street Journal report detailed how Amazon used such data to help it set pricing, determine which features to incorporate and decide whether it was even worth getting involved in a product category. 

After the Journal story came out, the House called for Bezos to testify

Google and Facebook, in addition to running the country’s most popular search engine and social network, respectively, dominate the bulk of the digital advertising market. 

Google has been under increased antitrust scrutiny by states around the country over its ad business, with the DOJ expected to file its own lawsuit this summer. 

Facebook revealed last year that the Federal Trade Commission launched an investigation into the company’s purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp and whether they were made to stifle competition. Beyond Zuckerberg appearing before Congress, he and COO Sheryl Sandberg could be deposed by the FTC as part of its investigation.

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