Given my background as a political science major, lawyer, and journalist, I shouldn’t be dispassionate about today’s Congressional antitrust hearing on the market power of online platforms, which will bring the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google into a single (virtual) space for questioning. This is the sort of feat that only a governmental body can pull off, and if nothing else, I’m glad that the House Judiciary Committee was able to compel these key executives to face public questions regarding their business activities.
The obvious problem is that this hearing is unlikely to accomplish anything meaningful in the near term. Less than 100 days remain before the entire House of Representatives faces elections, which means that any or all of the people questioning the tech CEOs today could be replaced in the months to come. In theory, that means there’s precious little time for the House to take legislative action against any of these companies, and even if it did, there’s roughly zero chance the Senate and president would follow suit. This is why many people have assumed that the hearing will be a circus — a muddled photo op with little end goal beyond crystallizing public anger against the increasing power of “big tech.”
My view is that today’s group hearing is a waypoint toward antitrust proceedings that now appear to be inevitable against at least some of these companies. Although legislators (read: Congress) can force executives to show up for hearings, the executive and judiciary branches will ultimately be the ones who pursue and adjudicate antitrust cases against the companies. Critically, these branches don’t operate on the same two-year election cycle as the House, and many of the civil servants who work on antitrust matters never face election at all. They toil anonymously over the course of years and sometimes multiple administrations to develop cases, providing the backbone for massive federal lawsuits — think United States v. Microsoft — that permanently change an anticompetitive company’s future.
It’s no surprise that the tech CEOs will begin their testimony today with prepared statements that their companies are good actors that haven’t done anything anticompetitive, or at least illegally anticompetitive. They’ll likely maintain that position regardless of whether hard questions and solid examples suggest otherwise, dodging as much as they can by pointing to the positive outcomes of their companies’ actions. Unless there’s a real curveball, all of the CEOs will emerge largely unscathed from the event, with an even greater chance of remaining in their positions than the legislators who questioned them.
But the real question isn’t whether Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google have made positive contributions. Each company certainly has accomplished amazing feats over the past two decades, and society wouldn’t be the same without even one of them, to say nothing of all of them. Rather, today’s issue is whether they’ve also hurt consumers, leveraging their power to restrain competition or become monopolies. And no matter how much you may love any or all of the services these companies provide, each one of them has hurt competition and used its market strength to force smaller players to comply with uncomfortable rules. Only time and further investigations will firmly establish whether they crossed the lines of legality with their actions, or rode as close to the edge as they could. Those investigations will continue past this Congress and shadow each company for the foreseeable future.
So treat today’s hearing as a preview of what will likely become a bigger topic in the years to come. You can watch a livestream of the event, titled “Examining the Dominance of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google,” here.