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Why Congress Is About to Ruin Its Best Chance to Hold Big Tech Companies Accountable

Reasonable people can debate the extent to which the federal government should be involved with regulating the world’s largest tech companies. At a minimum, it’s certainly reasonable for our elected officials to ask questions of companies with so much power, and which have so much control over our lives. 

And so, at noon EDT today, the CEOs of Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon, a group that includes two of the world’s richest men, will appear before Congress to answer those questions. That’s sure to be quite a sight, when you think about it–Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos, all appearing at a Congressional hearing at the same time.

Well, sort of. Instead of a line of CEOs sitting at a table in a large congressional hearing room, as with all things during the pandemic, each man will appear by video conference. 

There is one problem, however, and it’s really quite simple: Congress is remarkably bad at this. We’ll get to that in a moment.

While the topic, broadly, is antitrust, in reality, Congress has very different bones to pick with each of the four companies. For Facebook, the world’s second-largest advertising platform, the topic is its acquisition of competing platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp, and whether that stifles competition. 

Amazon, on the other hand, is facing scrutiny for the way it uses data from third-party sellers to compete against them by launching its own alternatives. With Apple, the topic is the control it exerts over its App Store. 

Except, hey, there’s Google over there. They’re an even bigger advertising platform than Facebook. They have an App Store as well and they charge the same thing as Apple. Okay, there are a variety of reasons that isn’t a very good argument (like the fact that Google allows you to load apps from places other than its official Google Play Store), but it does point out the flaw in having all four appear at the same time. 

Not only does it dilute the impact of any line of questioning because there’s a competitor sitting right next to you (virtually at least), it confuses the issue because they’re all there for different reasons.

Google is, at the moment, the company with the most at stake. The Justice Department is expected to file an antitrust case this summer. And while Facebook has acknowledged it’s the subject of an investigation, Apple and Amazon haven’t said much of anything on the topic, though almost everyone assumes it to be the case. 

Which brings us back to Congress. 

Have you ever seen lawmakers ask questions of tech company executives? Under normal circumstances, it’s pretty painful since most members of Congress are not experts on anything related to technology. At least, under normal circumstances, a congressperson might expect to score a few points on political theater, if not on substance. 

Under this format, it isn’t likely that either will occur. Have you been on a video meeting lately? It’s not exactly the most effective format for scoring points. 

And the Tech CEOs have essentially already come out ahead before the hearing even starts, just by the fact that they will all “appear” together. There’s always someone else for each to point at as another example of whatever accusation a member of Congress might make. 

That’s saying nothing of the fact that each will be sitting comfortably in their chosen environment. There’s something to be said about showing up on Capitol Hill and having to sit at a table before the House Antitrust Subcommittee–even for some of the most powerful executives in the world. 

Finally, I think it’s worth mentioning that only Facebook is underwater in terms of public perception, at least according to a Verge poll of consumer trust in tech companies. And, more than 2 billion people use Facebook (apparently despite the fact that many don’t trust it). That’s different than previous groups that Congress has tried to hold accountable, including the airline industry, financial institutions (after the mortgage crisis), and big tobacco. None of those had the favorable opinion among consumers that tech companies enjoy.

By the way, there is actually a lesson here, which is that the best way to accomplish something of substance is to eliminate as many possible points of failure. That includes distractions like trying to do too many things at once, or going for style over substance. Unfortunately, this is Congress, which means I’m not hopeful we’ll see much of either. 

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