Our Founders would not bow before a king, nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy.
Bold words from Rep. David Cicilline, Chair of the US House of Representatives anti-trust sub-committee, in opening remarks in Washington yesterday as four of tech’s most titanic titans were summoned to answer for their companies ‘sins’ before camera-hungry legislators.
It was billed over-excitedly as a major showdown in ongoing attempts to tame the digital ‘Robber Barons’ of the 21st century.
It was, of course, nothing of the sort.
What happened was a lot of grandstanding from politicians, a great deal of airing of vested interests and pet conspiracy theories, and an enormous amount of non-answering by said titans.
Not that they had much chance to do a lot of answering anyway, given the format of the proceedings. The politicians assembled had five minute slots in which they could ask their questions of the CEOs of Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google, once they got past their own moments center stage.
All too often, most of this time was taken up by long, rambling, self-posturing statements, while the targeted tech leader fiddled his thumbs and waited, mostly patiently, for his chance to be non-committal in return until time ran out and it was someone else’s turn. Democrat Mary Gay Scanlon was a case in point, cutting off Amazon’s Jeff Bezos in mid-response to her question with a sharp:
I’m sorry Mr. Bezos, I need to press on here!
A contented/shameless willingness to just not have an answer to hand was also on view. Democrat Rep. Pramila Jayapal wanted to know from Google boss Sundar Pichai what share of the ad exchange market his firm controls. Pichai didn’t bat an eyelid:
I’m not exactly familiar. I’ve seen various reports, but you know, we are a popular choice.
And it’s on to the next question!
The second problem was the line-up of targets. Given the nature of the proceedings, being able to grill Bezos, Pichai, Mark Zuckerberg and Tim Cook should have produced an opportunity to drill down deep…if they were each at the center of their own sessions. But having all four on offer at the same time rendered this impossible, even when the questioning stretched out over multiple hours.
Given the COVID crisis, the four CEOs were beamed in via a screen, looking initially like a hi-tech version of Hollywood Squares with each of the men in their own little cubes on screen. Eventually someone worked out how to go to a single screen for each speaker - if only there had been some tech expertise on hand to help! - but the numbers problem remained. There was a lot of sitting around, snacking, and waiting your turn.
In the event, returning ‘victim’ Zuckerberg remained the politicians favorite target, followed by Bezos, who had the added appeal of being new to this sort of thing and as such was fresh blood for the taking. Pichai, possibly the most composed of the four in the spotlight, came next, while Cook kept his head down and drew as little attention to himself as possible.
The third problem was the most predictable of all - the tension between the purpose of the session and the compulsion of politicians in such circumstances to posture, revel in their ‘Perry Mason moment’ and act up for the cameras as the Grand Inquisitor that most of them think they are, but emphatically are not. It’s been seen time and again, both in the US and other political fora around the world, that the only way to get ‘good’ results from such sessions is to ask a series of short, to-the-point, simple questions that demand straight answers and provide no room for equivocation.
What we got was questioning that strayed wildly from the main anti-trust theme and onto a variety of pet topics, including China, political bias, attitudes to working with the US military, attitudes to working with law enforcement and even so-called Cancel Culture. They’re all topics worth an airing in the right context perhaps, but the main talking point - are these companies just too damn big and powerful for anybody’s good? - got lost along the way.
With Republican and Democrat politicians on the sub-committee, there was a pretty clear party split around the broad topics that did emerge. Democrats were more concerned about market domination and the impact on ‘Mom and Pop shops’, while Republicans were more inclined to be supportive of the commercial interests of the big players. Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner sternly reminded the sub-committee:
Being big is not inherently bad. Quite the opposite. In America you should be rewarded for success.
What did rile up the Republican attendees was the supposed censorship of conservative messaging on social media platforms. Ohio’s Jim Jones was taking no prisoners on that topic:
I'll just cut to the chase -- Big Tech is out to get conservatives. That's not a suspicion. That's not a hunch. That's a fact.
It isn’t, of course, a fact. It’s an opinion at best, a conspiracy theory at worst. As Democrat Jamie Raskin of Maryland observed:
If Facebook is out there trying to repress conservative speech, they're doing a terrible job!
Still, Florida Republican Greg Steube was up in arms with his own pet theory, asking Google’s Pichai why his campaign emails were ending up in spam boxes. Pichai didn’t break a beat:
There’s nothing in the algorithm which has anything to do with political ideology.
But nothing that any of the four CEOs could say would have turned the ‘we’re being censored’ mindset around, least of all factual accuracy. Sensenbrenner demanded to know of Facebook’s Zuckerberg why Donald Trump Jr’s account had been restricted this week. Somehow managing not to smirk, Zuckerberg replied:
I think what you might be referring to happened on Twitter, so it's hard for me to speak to that.
I went in with low expectations so I emerged without disappointment. To be fair, there was some indication that more research had been done on this occasion by some of the sub-committee members - or their interns - with emails and past comments thrown in the face of the CEOs, particularly Zuckerberg.
But no blows landed and no serious damage was done. If looked at in a ‘bread and circuses’ sort of way, there wasn’t even the sight of any of the titans losing his cool under pressure.
Still, at the end, Cicilline congratulated himself and his colleagues on a job well done:
Today we had the opportunity to hear from the decision-makers of four of the most powerful companies in the world. This hearing has made one fact clear to me: these companies as they exist today have monopoly power. Some need to be broken up. This must end.
Bravo! There’s your attempt at a headline. Now, how are we going to do that in practice?
What the next step will be will become clear next month. Meanwhile, in noises off, there was a long shadow cast over the proceedings before a single word had been spoken as President Trump took to Twitter to declaim:
If Congress doesn't bring fairness to Big Tech, which they should have done years ago, I will do it myself with Executive Orders. In Washington, it has been ALL TALK and NO ACTION for years, and the people of our Country are sick and tired of it!”
Again, that’s an opinion - a hugely contentious one - not a fact. But this time it’s an opinion that almost foreshadows some uncomfortable showdowns between now and 3 November.
But until those clashes occur, for now at least, Big Tech came to Washington (sort of) and it went home untroubled.