On Monday at noon ET, one of the more notable Congressional hearings in Silicon Valley history is set to take place
. The 15-member House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee will ask questions of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai. The event is what’s known as an evidentiary hearing: members of Congress are gathering evidence as part of a 13-month investigation into competition and digital marketplaces.
The outcome could be legislation that seeks to rein in the market power of these giants, limiting their ability to create monopolies. Or it could turn out to be one more theatrical tech hearing in a series of them, where members of Congress look to score points with gotcha-style questioning as CEOs furrow their brows and promise that a member of their teams will follow up on that later.
A weird thing about the hearing is that while Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google share some broad characteristics, they are also very different companies. (Scott Rosenberg has a nice, concise overview of their similarities and differences in Axios
.) It is difficult to imagine a single antitrust remedy that applies equally to all four companies and restrains their power in the same way. When I try to imagine what this hearing will be like, I think of 15 prosecutors trying four murder cases simultaneously … on Zoom. (That said, it’s not that unusual
for a panel of industry CEOs to appear together before Congress.)
On the other hand, each of the companies operates one or more marketplaces. Amazon sells real goods; Facebook and Google sell ads; Apple sells apps. Each of them has successfully aggregated hundreds of millions of people or more into world-scale user bases that sometimes resemble nation-states unto themselves as much as they do traditional corporations. They are not alone in this — Microsoft is conspicuously absent from Monday’s proceedings, as Ben Thompson has noted
— but if trying four murder cases simultaneously is crazy, five would have been even crazier.
So what will Congress ask about on Monday? In Protocol
, Issie Lapowsky and Emily Birnbaum make their best guesses
. And they make this salient point about how good these CEOs have it, all things considering:
In facing these questions together, the four CEOs are getting off easy. Their testimony will be virtual, for one thing, eliminating the bad optics of having them stand before the committee in suits, hands in the air as they swear to tell the truth. And by testifying as a group, not only will they share the brunt of the committee’s contempt, they’ll also benefit from the fact that, given the time constraints and the number of witnesses, lawmakers will never be able to probe all of the potential antitrust violations these companies are individually accused of.
antitrust problems are centered on its App Store. The company extracts a 30 percent cut of revenue from apps selling digital goods, including from apps that it competes with directly. Apps like Spotify
, which it challenges with Apple Music, or Basecamp’s Hey
, which competes with Mail and iCloud. Apple’s response to this has been that these apps are doing fine, the app ecosystem is doing fine, and taking a 30 percent cut of everything is simply the industry standard.
reports that Cook is extremely annoyed at having to appear at this hearing, in part because he has spent so much time sucking up to the Trump administration. Christopher Stern writes
Cook’s mixture of low-key charm and savvy political maneuvering have also played a role in cultivating ties in Washington. He has built a rapport with Trump and his family, joining the president for private dinners while sitting by his side during White House events (including one last year in which Trump referred to Cook as “Tim Apple”).
Cook seems to have stayed on Trump’s good side partly by keeping his mouth shut. Last year, Cook led Trump on a tour of a Texas factory that makes high-end Mac computers, later taking credit for “opening”
the plant as part of a push to bring more manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. Despite the fact that the plant had opened six years earlier,
long before the start of Trump’s presidency, Cook didn’t correct him.
Alas, Congress is a separate branch of government. For now!
purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp, and aggressive cloning of Snap, led to a period of relative stagnation among social apps in the United States while cementing a dominant position alongside Google in digital advertising. It has also acted in arguably anticompetitive ways, like blocking Vine users from finding their Facebook friends on the app
once Vine started to get traction. That’s why the company is currently under separate investigations for antitrust issues from the Department of Justice
, the Federal Trade Commission
, and state attorneys general
. The promise of this hearing for Facebook watchers is that it could unearth new documents pointing to how executives talked about these issues internally when it was making the decisions in question. I’m excited for this part!
As for Google
? That company probably faces the most serious near-term consequences of antitrust action. The Justice Department is reportedly planning to file a case against Google this summer
. Two separate investigations by the nation’s attorneys general are also underway — one led by Google’s home state of California
, and the other comprising most other states
. At issue are longstanding questions around how Google promotes its own products over rivals in search results, as I wrote about here last week
notes that other issues under investigation include Google making its search engine the default on Android devices, paying Apple billions to be the default search engine on the iPhone, and buying up major digital advertising networks to build its half of the digital advertising duopoly.
It’s hard to read about everything at stake here and not wish that each of these companies had been called to attend separate, more focused hearings. And not just because it would likely result in more revealing questions being asked — but also because it could give room for CEOs to give more complete, meaningful answers.
But given the somnambulant state of antitrust regulation in the United States over the past 20 years, I’ll take what I can get. Whatever happens on Monday, it seems likely that the hearing will be one we talk about for a long time to come.