This time, Congress did its homework before grilling big tech CEOs

“How reassuring it is to know,” I snarked when Facebook tycoon Mark Zuckerberg appeared before the U.S. Senate in 2018, “that powerful people who don’t understand Facebook are investigating Facebook on our behalf.”

Mind you, I appreciate the plight of older congresspeople. They have staff to handle their social media. On one hand, it spares them from having to learn the ins and outs for themselves. On the other, it sets them up to parade their out-of-touchness.

Indeed, during the 2018 fiasco, Senator Lindsey Graham, R, South Carolina, asked Mark Zuckerberg, “Is Twitter the same as what you do?” Senator Bill Nelson, D, Florida, couldn’t figure out why he kept seeing ads for chocolate. And Orrin Hatch, erstwhile senator from my home state of Utah, asked, “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” Zuckerberg deadpanned, probably with difficulty, “Senator, we run ads.”

“Hours of withering questions”

But last week, members of Congress appeared a bit savvier. Zuckerberg, along with Apple’s Tim Cook, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Google’s (and parent company Alphabet’s) Sundar Pichai, fielded questions before a congressional hearing on anti-trust issues. The questions were better informed, more pointed. As Bloomberg put it, the CEOs endured “hours of withering questions from Congress.”

At times the CEOs, perhaps backed into a corner, seemed to evade. Take, for instance, when Pramila Jayapal, D, Washington, asked Zuckerberg “whether Facebook had ever threatened to squash smaller competitors by copying their products if they wouldn’t let Facebook acquire them.” Kevin Roose of The New York Times wrote:

It was a good question with a clear-cut answer … An honest Mr. Zuckerberg might have replied, “Yes, Congresswoman, like most successful tech companies, we acquire potential competitors all the time, and copy the ones we can’t buy” … Instead, he dodged and weaved …

However, Roose stipulated, “… I don’t mean to pick on Mr. Zuckerberg. Every other witness at Wednesday’s hearing … also dodged lawmakers’ most pointed questions, or professed their ignorance.”

To wit, Politico said that Bezos gave:

… an inconclusive answer on whether the company uses data to undermine its third-party merchants. Amazon is still facing allegations that one of its executives misled Congress about that same issue last year.

Nonentheless, observed that …

… the consensus view of Bezos’ performance among market watchers is that he was more transparent and authentic than the other CEOs, but also potentially more likely to create issues for his firm down the line thanks to his comments.

As for the other CEOs, Politico had this to say:

Lawmakers hammered Google Sundar Pichai about his company’s relations with China and whether it steals ideas from other businesses, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg about a blizzard of disinformation plaguing his social network, and Apple CEO Tim Cook on whether his iPhone-maker strong-arms developers on its App Store.

According to technology newsletter Protocol, the CEOs “… answered many questions directly during Wednesday’s antitrust hearing in the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee. But there were still plenty of questions that the CEOs pledged they’d get to later or declined to answer altogether.”

But the Times, overall, concluded,

… each of the four tech executives appeared to be taken off guard by the rigor and depth of the questions they faced. If they were expecting to teach Tech 101 to a group of clueless lawmakers, they instead found themselves in the principal’s office, being confronted with evidence of the spitballs they’d thrown. And they must have realized, in those moments, that they were seeing the beginnings of accountability.

The outcome was less than ideal, and the topic is far from put to rest.

Protocol further noted that “subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline of Rhode Island ended the hearing by saying that all firms “have monopoly power” and that “the CEOs’ testimony did little to put the issue to bed for Big Tech once and for all.”

Still, the hearing was not without the occasional show of naiveté—or perhaps of ADD—on the part of questioners. That the hearing had been convened to examine antitrust issues did not prevent some lawmakers from venturing into questions of content, fact-checking, and censorship. Here, the poor CEOs couldn’t win. While some representatives scolded them for rejecting certain types of content and products, others scolded them for not rejecting them.

And then there was Jim Jordan, R, Ohio, who asked Cook if “the cancel culture mob” might be “dangerous.”

Remember, these people vote on banking regulations.

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