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Congress Holds Big Tech Antitrust Hearing

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For the first time, the titans of the world's most powerful tech companies appeared today before Congress - on videoconference, anyway. The heads of Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google were there to answer questions about their enormous power and how they use it. Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline, who's leading the House investigation into these companies, laid out the stakes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID CICILLINE: Our founders would not bow before a king, nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy.

CHANG: NPR's Shannon Bond has been watching the hearing and joins us now. And we should note all these companies are financial supporters of NPR.

Hey, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So how did these four CEOs come off today, you think?

BOND: Well, you know, these are four very powerful men who lead these huge companies that shape everything about the way we live, the way we work, especially these days. And - but, you know, across the board, the message they were sending was, we're not big and scary. We're people just like you.

So Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder and CEO - he talked about how his mother had him when he - she was just 17. He talked about his father, a Cuban immigrant, adopting him at age 4. Sundar Pichai of Google also got very biographical. He talked about growing up in India without a computer, the story of immigrating to America, walking into a college computer lab the first time. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg talked about building a company from nothing. And Tim Cook talked about how Apple's success could really only be possible in America. And across the board, they also all underscored how everything they do is about making customers happy. And they face fierce competition from each other, which, of course, was the topic of this hearing.

CHANG: Right. OK. So give us a sense of what kinds of questions lawmakers asked. I mean, what seemed to be their main concerns?

BOND: Well, many of them, especially on the Democratic side, really honed in on these core competition issues. They're - so they're scrutinizing how these companies got so big and what they're doing with that power. Have they used it to hurt their competitors or even their customers? So an example of this - you know, critics say that Facebook squashes competition by buying or copying rivals. And we heard that come up when Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, asked Zuckerberg about Facebook buying Instagram, the photo-sharing app it bought back in 2012. And Nadler pointed to emails from Zuckerberg to another Facebook executive talking about that purchase.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JERROLD NADLER: In your own words, you purchased Instagram to neutralize a competitive threat.

BOND: And in response, Zuckerberg said, at the time, federal regulators approved that deal and, you know, nobody knew back in 2012 that Instagram would get so big.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK ZUCKERBERG: I mean, I think with hindsight, it probably looks, like, obvious that Instagram would've reached the scale that it has today. But at the time, it was far from obvious.

BOND: And Democrats had similar questions for Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Google's Sundar Pichai and Apple's Tim Cook about their business models and how they treat competition.

CHANG: OK. Those were the Democrats. What about Republicans? What were their concerns?

BOND: Well, they used a lot of their time during questioning to bring up a favorite topic - accusations that these big platforms are biased against conservatives. So a prime example is what Jim Jordan, who is the Judiciary Committee's ranking member, asked Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM JORDAN: Can you today assure Americans you will not tailor your features in any way to help - specifically help one candidate over other? And this - what I'm concerned about is you helping Joe Biden over President Trump.

SUNDAR PICHAI: We won't do any work, you know, to politically tilt anything one way or the other. It's against our core values.

BOND: Now, in another exchange with a different member, Pichai says, you know, he gets complaints about bias from all sides, not just conservatives. But, you know, it's this kind of line of questioning that some of the Democratic committee members and staff were sort of concerned about. They said they really wanted this hearing to focus on competition. It's these kind of questions that veered furthest away from those main topics.

CHANG: OK. So what substantively are we expecting to come out of this whole hearing?

BOND: Right. Well, you know, just to remind everyone, this committee has been investigating big tech for a year. They've looked at millions of documents. They've had hours and hours of hearings and closed-door briefings. You know, this was their opportunity to take these questions to the top brass of the company. And ultimately, they're going to produce a report that's expected to recommend potential changes in how antitrust law is enforced and maybe even changes to the law - those laws themselves 'cause, of course, Congress gets to write the law. And Cicilline, who's leading the investigation, has talked about how it has been a bipartisan process.

But it's not so clear, really, that there is real support for new laws on a bipartisan basis, especially from Republicans like Jim Sensenbrenner, the ranking member on the Antitrust Subcommittee. And he said, I think the laws we have are fine; maybe it's about enforcing them. And also, remember, taking on these companies - that's taking on an economic powerhouse at a time when the American economy is unraveling. Amazon alone employs a million people. So the question is, will Congress really have the stomach to do anything about this?

CHANG: That is NPR's Shannon Bond.

Thank you, Shannon.

BOND: Thanks, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF RONE'S "NAKT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.