Big Tech Does Not Agree With That Characterization

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The Plain View

I found it fitting that the first time Congress got to question the entire quartet of the most powerful tech CEOs, none were actually in the room. When they stood up to be sworn in for their “tobacco moment”—named after the oath taken by nicotine-stained executives who finally had to answer for pushing cigarettes on us—Sundar Pichai, Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, and Jeff Bezos appeared in tiny squares of a partially filled grid, captured by webcams placed in carefully denatured, anodyne rooms. (This dashed my hopes of peeking at stuffed bookcases and maybe spotting a copy of In the Plex or Facebook: The Inside Story.) The distance didn’t just free them from the sweaty scrum of camera people, protesters, press tables, and face-to-face questioning from legislators enjoying the home-court advantage. It also symbolized the disconnect between the people they styled themselves to be, and the way that their interlocutors saw them. The catchphrase of the day, invariably preceded by a disclaimer that it came with all due respect to the legislator who just disrespected them, was some variation of I disagree with that characterization. Or didn’t accept the premise. Or described it differently.
These expressions of who-me? indignation came whenever a House Judiciary subcommittee member confronted one of the CEOs with evidence of anticompetitive actions or just plain evil deeds, and then made a reasonable conclusion that what happens in a company actually reflects on the character of the company. And those who lead it. Yes, the questions were sometimes asked in showboat fashion: Why does Google steal from honest businesses? Mr. Bezos, why would [a seller] compare your company to a drug dealer? But the issues that the questions referred to were usually backed up by evidence—sometimes damning internal documents.

And that seemed to me the point of the hearing. The stated topic was antitrust, the premise being that each of those companies had cornered one or more markets and was abusing that power. But considering our legislative gridlock, it is unlikely that this Congress or even the next could pass a law redefining antitrust for the digital age. The action in antitrust will take place at the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission, and the attorney general offices in the 59 states and territories. (And even that will be slow.)