The bad news is that the entire tech-and-democracy world will now be sitting around for another two days twiddling our thumbs while we wait for the social networking event of the summer. The good news is that the extra time will give Congress more opportunities to consider their approach to navigating a strange hearing in which the CEOs of four very different but similarly successful companies will take questions about monopolies, acquisitions, and competition. (In keeping with Republican tradition, there will also be bad-faith questions about conservative bias
Today seemed like a good day to think through what good
questions for Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Sundar Pichai might look like. Fortunately, New York University professor and podcaster Scott Galloway offered up a sharp, data-driven guide to what Congress might ask
, paired with helpful charts that help an average person understand the scale at which Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google are operating — and how that scale disadvantages competitors and likely discourages various categories of business from ever starting.
I particularly liked this proposed question, about Amazon:
In a five-week period during the pandemic, your firm added the value of the world’s largest firm by revenue — Walmart
. If your firm can accrete the value of the largest firm in the world in five weeks, and money is power, then isn’t your firm the most powerful private entity in history? Hasn’t your firm reached a level of soft and economic power well beyond the point when the DOJ has historically taken antitrust action?And this one, about Apple.
And this one, about Apple:
Q: Apple TV+ is offering consumers $1 billion in original content for every .80c a month the consumer spends on your Apple TV+ streaming video service. Isn’t it your opportunity to differentiate your $1,300 phones and fund Apple TV+ from the revenues of an unrelated product that allows you to offer a media product at well below cost? In sum, isn’t Apple guilty of “dumping,” that is, buying market share with unfeasibly low prices?
“How does your large share of advertising/ecommerce/devices/software not stifle innovation among smaller companies looking to gain traction in industries where critical mass is an economic driver?”
: “Question for Sundar: What work is YouTube doing to investigate how they can increase engagement with their product WITHOUT radicalizing the viewer?”
Meanwhile, the CEOs have two more days of prep. At Facebook, Zuckerberg plans to continue hammering his message that a strong Facebook is a necessary counterweight to Chinese influence, Sarah Frier reports at Bloomberg
Zuckerberg plans to portray his company as an American success story in a competitive and unpredictable market, now threatened by the rise of Chinese social media apps around the world — and increasingly, at home, with the popularity of TikTok, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified because the CEO’s remarks aren’t yet public.
The broader argument the CEO plans to make is that any weakening of U.S. companies will cede territory to Chinese companies abroad, particularly in high-growth markets like India. Zuckerberg made a similar argument
at a 2019 hearing about Libra, the now-renamed cryptocurrency. “China is moving quickly to launch a similar idea in the coming months,” he warned. “If America doesn’t innovate, our financial leadership is not guaranteed.” Later that year, he said that it was important not to let China set the rules for the internet in the rest of the world, arguing that the country’s values aren’t democratic.
I won’t offer too much editorial comment on this line of thinking now — I want to see what Zuckerberg says at the hearing — but it really is notable what a gift TikTok has been to Facebook as it prepares for these hearings. Not only has a genuine, bona fide competitor to Facebook emerged — thanks in part to spending a good portion of $1 billion on Facebook ads
— but it comes from a repressive authoritarian regime whose censorship of political speech offends Republicans and Democrats alike. I’d still rather have a truly competitive domestic market for social apps than a monopolistic national champion waging battle on America’s behalf, though.
The Wednesday event is an evidentiary hearing, meaning that the questions asked of the CEOs are intended to generate material for potential antitrust action against the companies. To the extent there will be a tangible outcome of the day, it will be in any evidence the CEOs provide for or against the case that their companies should be limited in size or power.
But the hearing will also a spectacle — at least, to the extent that a Zoom call can be a spectacle — and there could be value in that, too. After a decade in which Congress mostly allowed tech giants to operate through a policy of benign neglect, a majority of Americans believe that the biggest tech companies have become too powerful
. Sharply worded questions about power are no substitute for meaningful regulation, of course. But they may be a start.