Watershed moment: CEOs of four technology giants testify collectively in Congress for the first time


In the coming weeks, when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gather for congressional hearings, this could be a watershed moment for big tech companies.
The CEOs of the four companies are expected to attend a house committee hearing to investigate whether Amazon, apple, alphabet and Facebook have unfairly frozen competition, marking the first time Congress has tried to jointly hold leaders of large technology companies accountable. The strength that these companies demonstrate – not to mention the combined wealth of $2.5 trillion – will be different from anything that lawmakers have faced in the past.
Chief executives agreed this week to testify before the house antitrust Committee. This means that if they appear alone, they will avoid being questioned as they should be. They don’t have time to delve into the complexity of these companies’ distinct markets and business models.
However, the spectacular spectacle of the group hearing can compensate for this by highlighting the combined economic strength of the four companies. The hearing also provides an opportunity to highlight questionable business strategies that the big four have in common. For example, they use their dominant platforms to crowd out competitors and favor internal services, whether it’s guiding search queries (Google), promoting their own products (Amazon), or integrating internal services with their own hardware more closely (Apple). If critics of large technology companies are looking for a symbolic moment to hold the industry accountable, this may be the case.
Inevitably, although this will not lower expectations, the hearing will still be ignored as a political stage. In the field of antitrust, performance is very important. Investigations often rely on the power of political momentum and public opinion, even if any sanctions ultimately have to be tested by court supervision. There may not be a better chance for politicians trying to persuade people to take action.
It’s a glorious tradition for congressional hearings to hold the top leadership of the entire industry accountable. This should keep tech bosses on their toes. Having a group of CEOs line up, having them unanimously raise their right hands to take the oath of office, and then having them sit side by side on a table is obviously symbolic in court. It’s not just image that matters: the process is also psychologically important, putting a group of wealthy business owners, who are used to feeling invincible in the executive team, on the defensive.
In 1994, when the men who controlled big tobacco suits were placed on Capitol Hill, it was a turning point that forced the industry to pay billions of dollars in losses. In 2008, at the height of the financial crisis, the heads of America’s major auto makers filed a plea for help from Congress (although all three executives appeared on their own corporate jets, it didn’t help).
It will be more difficult for legislators to impose a similar blow on large technology companies. The particularities of this pandemic are likely to take away the magic of the hearings: CEOs are not sitting side by side as legislators take turns, but more likely they are being questioned through video windows on zoom screens. However, if properly arranged, there are still many opportunities to make an impact.
By organizing a meeting of four chief executives, David cicilline, chairman of the house antitrust Committee, showed a keen sense of current power. The representative from Rhode Island methodically dealt with detailed complaints from critics of large technology companies and summoned witnesses to technology companies in a series of hearings over the past year. Now, he has the opportunity to highlight the highlights and highlight the stakes.
There are obvious pitfalls. What needs to be avoided is that after the “Cambridge analysis scandal” was exposed, Zuckerberg attended hearings in front of two branches of Congress. The anger of politicians is obvious, and Zuckerberg has been widely criticized for “avoiding answering” many important issues. But he managed to quell the political attacks, largely because of the uncoordinated and decentralized arrangements for the hearings.
At this collective hearing, it will be difficult to design a model that allows important issues to be raised at a sufficiently high level, while allowing time to explore the worst practices of these dominant technology companies. But if properly designed, it could be a disturbing moment for the top echelons of some of the world’s most powerful companies.