Tech CEOs to Face Questions About Their Dominance

They control the digital spaces where many around the world spend their time, shop, work, and talk to friends and family.  Together, the companies’ combined annual sales are roughly the same as the gross domestic product of Saudi Arabia, as Axios notes.Now the CEOs of four top U.S. technology companies — Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google – are set to answer questions Wednesday in front of the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust about how they wield their considerable market power. Deposition for the world The hearing comes as federal and state regulators are looking into whether the tech giants, through their dominance in some markets, stifle competition.  The joint appearance of Tim Cook of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Sundar Pichai of Google and Jeff Bezos of Amazon is a sign of how high the stakes are for the future of their businesses, legal observers say. Critics, customers and regulators globally will be watching.  “This is a deposition for the whole world,” said William Kovacic, a former Federal Trade Commission member and now a law professor at George Washington University.  Asking the questions will be the 15 members of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, lawmakers from both political parties, who have spent the past year looking into antitrust and competition concerns with each firm.  The report on their probe is expected at the end of the summer, but the lawmakers’ questions will likely reveal what they have learned and some of their thinking about what they may do next, legal experts say.    A first for Amazon’s Bezos The hearing, in many ways, is unprecedented. Never before have these CEOs appeared together in front of a congressional hearing, albeit over video conference due to the coronavirus pandemic.  It will be the first time Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon and the richest person in the world, will testify before Congress.  “This is an important accountability exercise,” Kovacic said. “It does demonstrate that the branches of government responsible for high-level policymaking have the capacity to hold these powerful executives and their extraordinary companies to account. So that’s important. To remind them who does set larger policy.”  Daniel Crane, a law professor at the University of Michigan, said the hearing is an opportunity for the tech leaders to show they understand concerns about the power they have over people’s lives.  “That’s what I’m hoping to hear, these CEOs saying, ‘We hear you, we hear the concerns that are being expressed, and here is the way we come to the table to be part of the solution,’” Crane said.  Changed tone in Washington  The hearing also shines a spotlight on U.S. regulators and lawmakers, whose job it is to set policies and enforce laws that stop firms from using their market dominance to kill competition. They have been under increasing criticism from some antitrust experts that the government’s oversight of these giants has been weak, especially compared to stronger enforcement in Europe.  In recent years, the tone has changed in Washington from one of caution about taking on Big Tech to one of resolve that something has to be done, Kovacic said.  “U.S. agencies are also weary of watching the Europeans do everything and realizing that policy in a variety of areas — privacy, competition — is being set in Europe. And if the U.S. doesn’t play, it will continue to be set in Europe,” he said.  Sally Hubbard, director of enforcement strategy at the Open Markets Institute, a competition think tank, said she will watch the hearing for signs that lawmakers want to pursue “robust enforcement.” On her anti-monopoly wish list is “structural breakups” of the tech giants and blocking companies from buying smaller companies seen as threats.  “These problems are really deep and really widespread, and we need to really use the whole anti-monopoly tool kit to address them,” said Hubbard, a former assistant attorney general for antitrust enforcement in the New York attorney general’s office.    Lawmakers’ challenge    Lawmakers can’t charge the tech companies with antitrust violations or attempt to break them into smaller entities.  But what they can do is change the laws and put pressure on regulators at the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice to do more to enforce existing regulations.  The Justice Department is reportedly likely to bring antitrust lawsuits against Google. State regulators may join the Justice Department or pursue their own cases, according to reports.Part of the challenge lawmakers face at the hearing will be that while Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon are the Who’s Who of internet firms, in fact their businesses are not really the same.  Still, the policies set by lawmakers in the months and years ahead will likely affect Big Tech for years to come.  

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