Big Tech vs. Washington
Have lawmakers united against Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon?
The smartest insight and analysis, from all perspectives, rounded up from around the web:
Last week's Big Tech antitrust hearing represented "a rare moment of united purpose" from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, said Christopher Mims at The Wall Street Journal. While "questions swung between the pet causes of the members," both parties seemed to agree that Big Tech is too big. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D.-N.Y.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, began his remarks to CEOs Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Sundar Pichai of Google, and Tim Cook of Apple by comparing them "to the railroad robber barons of old." Zuckerberg was asked about Facebook's 2012 acquisition of Instagram and emails intimating he would "destroy" Instagram if it resisted his overtures. Bezos was grilled about a Journal article alleging Amazon used data from sellers in its marketplace to design competing products. Pichai had to fend off many queries about Google's "dominance of the online ad marketplace." There were a few detours; one Republican congressman mistakenly asked why Facebook had suspended an account owned by Donald Trump Jr. (it was Twitter). But lawmakers "kept circling back to the idea" that the power of these companies ought to be checked.
Yes, both parties want to reign in Big Tech, said Jessica Melugin at National Review, but "notably lacking from the political theater was the current U.S. standard for antitrust: consumer harm." That's because in reality these four companies offer many services for free, "innovate rapidly, and compete vigorously, often with each other." Lawmakers seized on Amazon's treatment of third-party sellers, but "grocery stores, big-box retailers, and department stores have used data from branded products" to produce generics for decades. And the practice "benefits consumers with more options at lower prices."
Forget the old antitrust definitions, said Franklin Foer at The Atlantic. Sticking to a narrow standard of consumer welfare won't fly anymore. "The internet has allowed the creation of a new style of monopoly. Nobody escapes the pull of these dominant firms," and their concentrated power is a threat to democracy. Congress now recognizes that, and lawmakers came prepared with tough queries, "unlike the Zuckerberg fiasco of 2018."
The "five-hour deluge of probing questions" didn't shake investor confidence in the tech giants, said Rachel Lerman at The Washington Post. Stock analysts said they might have been more worried "had there been a focus on anticompetitive behavior." But with many questions "veering off topic," the markets shrugged off the show. Shares in all but Google surged a day after the hearings as the companies posted better-than-expected results for the quarter; Apple's stock price rose by more than 10 percent in a single day as analysts called it a winner in the hearings. "The strong showing demonstrates how well the tech giants are positioned to withstand significant challenges, including the scrutiny of Congress." The tech CEOs were eager to schedule the hearings before their earnings reports, said Casey Newton at The Verge — a few days later and they might have faced accusations of "pandemic profiteering." The face-off was messy and unsatisfying for many critics, but "in an age when these tech CEOs can feel all but untouchable," it still "showed us the beginnings of accountability."
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.