For over a year, top lawmakers in Congress have been investigating Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. The investigation’s purpose? To determine whether the companies have abused their power and dominance in the online marketplace.
Now, the CEOs of those companies are testifying before lawmakers on Wednesday in the biggest hearing of its kind since Microsoft’s Bill Gates went to Washington in 1998. While most of the executives have appeared before Congress previously, they’ve never faced a situation quite like this one. All four are testifying alongside one another — and in a pandemic-driven twist, they are attending the hearing virtually, using Cisco’s WebEx conferencing platform. The hearing was delayed about an hour from its original noon ET start time.
It didn’t take long for the first fiery exchange, but it was not with the tech CEOs. Rep. Jordan sparked a fight with Rep. David Cicilline, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel, when he requested that Rep. Mike Johnson, the top Republican on the committee’s constitution subcommittee, be allowed to participate in the hearing.
After being denied due to an objection by another member, Jordan continued to insist that Johnson be allowed to join — prompting a tense moment with Cicilline, who ultimately reminded all lawmakers that they must wear a mask when it is not their turn to speak.
In delivering their opening remarks, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai pointed to their immigrant backgrounds, with Bezos telling the story of his adopted father, who immigrated from Cuba. Pichai is from India. (Follow along in real-time on CNN Business here.)
Expect lawmakers to pepper the companies with highly specific questions about their businesses based on documents and other evidence gathered throughout the 13-month probe. Among other things, Amazon is under scrutiny for its use of seller data; Apple, over its app store policies; Facebook, for its acquisition strategy and its dominance in online advertising; and Google, for its own practices in search and advertising. For their part, the companies are expected to argue that they have helped countless entrepreneurs and small businesses, and have made America a leader in innovation amid rising competition from China.
The high-profile event has all the makings for a spectacle. But any fireworks will simply reflect the underlying stakes for these tech titans, who face multiple probes by regulators at the federal and state levels, as well as overseas. Those investigations could lead to lawsuits, fines or other consequences for what have become the world’s biggest, wealthiest corporations.
The tech companies are expected to play up the benefits they’ve provided to American businesses and consumers, and point to the competitive threat posed by China. A copy of Zuckerberg’s testimony obtained by CNN shows the Facebook founder will argue that unlike China and its vision for the internet, which is “focused on very different ideas,” Facebook arrived at its success “the American way: we started with nothing and provided better products that people find valuable.”
Each of the testifying executives will come bearing different experiences with lawmakers. Apple’s Tim Cook testified in 2013, before the backlash against tech really took hold, and largely came away unscathed — discussing the finer points of global tax policy with lawmakers. Pichai proved cool under pressure in a hearing covering Google’s data practices and claims of political bias held by the House Judiciary Committee in late 2018. And Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was grilled for 10 hours by the House and Senate about the company’s track record on privacy.
Of the four CEOs, however, much of the general public’s attention is likely to fall on Bezos. The world’s richest man has never testified before Congress. Indeed, it’s rare to see Bezos interviewed in an unscripted or unfriendly setting, leading many to wonder how he is likely to perform under questioning.
As for Congress, the hearing will likely lead to a report by the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel, followed by possible legislation to rein in the tech industry or to revise the nation’s competition laws.