The US Congress’ Investigation Into Big Tech Decoded

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After a year-long investigation by the US House of Representatives, CEO’s of the four largest tech companies are set to face lawmakers on July 29 at the Capitol. The US Congress investigation into big tech covers a host of issues – from antitrust to anti-competitive behaviour, that have for decades gone unchecked. Now finally, the American people (and indeed the world), will see Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google held accountable. 

So how did we get here? The investigation was launched in June 2019 by the antitrust panel of the House Judiciary Committee after allegations that some tech companies had grown too big, and wielded too much power. Along with the House, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Justice Department have also been investigating the companies. Now a year later, the House has over 1.3 million documents it plans to use to grill Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai and Tim Cook.

The Largest Investigation Since Microsoft

The investigation into big tech is one of the largest ever. The last time a tech CEO was grilled with this much data was back in the ’90s, when Microsoft faced the music for forcing users to use Internet Explorer. Today, however, there’s a lot more at stake for the CEO’s. Over the course of the year-long investigation, the House has conducted five public hearings, hundreds of hours of interviews and depositions from Zuckerberg and Pichai. Led by Chairman David Cicilline (D-RI), the executives face a grilling from which there is little recourse.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler presides over the House Judiciary Committee. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Once the investigation is concluded, the House plans to publish a report on how the big four have avoided liability under current antitrust laws. Given the central role these corporations play in the lives of the American people, it is critical that their CEOs are forthcoming. As we have said from the start, their testimony is essential for us to complete this investigation,” Cicillne said in a statement last week.

Naturally, the politics of the Trump administration has trickled down to the investigation in both houses of Congress. While the Democrats look into antitrust, the Republicans are more concerned with bias against conservatives. Spearheading this initiative is Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who has already filed a criminal referral against Zuckerberg for making false statements to Congress. In recent weeks, tech companies have started taking a hardline against false statements and lies shared by conservatives on social media. 

What’s at Stake?

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For the first time, Jeff Bezos and Amazon will be questioned, and this comes at a very difficult time for the company. Worker strikes aside, Amazon has been accused of using seller data to guide the development of the company’s own products. Amazon’s associate general counsel Nate Sutton denied the fact at a hearing last July, but a report by the Wall Street Journal has found that is indeed the case. Critics have also accused the company of undercutting competitors by selling products at a loss, so as to appear cheaper. Amazon argues that customers benefit in the end, so there is no harm. 

The investigation into Apple has mainly been focussed on the App Store, after developers complained against the company’s “Apple Tax”, i.e. the 30% cut Apple takes of all revenues generated on apps and games. Since Apple’s own apps like Apple Music, Apple TV+ and Apple Maps do not pay any fee, developers allege that this gives the company an unfair advantage in the market. While the company has defended the policy, both the US and EU could force a change if they find it in violation of competition rules.

Facebook is no stranger to the US Congress. Mark Zuckeberg has routinely been grilled by lawmakers for the past two years on a variety of issues. The investigation into the social media giant is primarily focussed on Facebook’s role in election misinformation, failure to protect user data and political bias. The company has so far taken the line that China is a larger threat, and Zuckerberg has routinely called for better regulation around politics and voting.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images

Google’s Sundar Pichai too faces multiple lines of questioning, from the company’s role in helping people find information to its role in digital advertising. Google is also facing an investigation by the Justice Department. In 2019, Kent Walker the SVP of Global Affairs at Google published a blog defending the company, saying it creates choice and spurs innovation. 

A New Regulatory Era

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With Wednesday’s hearings, the Congress’ investigation will formally come to an end. That simply means the end of the fact-gathering process. Right now, the Congress is simply trying to understand the four companies business models and how they operate. Clarity on that should inform the next step – regulation, or legislative action. It is very likely the Justice Department and FTC could issue fines against the companies. The House is also likely to draft bills that change the way anti-competitive behaviour is defined in US law. Right now, the law does not take into account digital media, which is the loophole companies like Google have used to skirt regulation.  

But before that happens, all eyes will be on the committee members to make this moment count.  Never before have the four most powerful executives in America been together in the same hearing. It is a historical moment that will one way or another lead to significant consequences for the American people. As we saw with Zuckerberg’s deposition in 2018, some lawmakers have a very poor understanding of tech, and that line of questioning has consequences.

While their questions make for great meme material, the time lawmakers have is extremely limited. If they don’t ask the right questions, they won’t get all the facts. All four CEO’s are likely to deflect any awkward questions, after all their jobs and businesses are at stake. So if the lawmakers don’t do their jobs right, the companies can get away without having to suffer consequences, making the whole investigation moot. 

Bezos, Cook, Pichai and Zuckerberg are right now the most powerful men in America. Together, their companies are worth $5 trillion and control a large share of all global information. Any attempt to regulate them won’t be easy, but in the past, America has found a way to put politics aside for the greater good. Will they do so now? We won’t have to wait long to find out. 

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The hearing is scheduled to begin at 09:00 PT (17:00 BST). You can watch the live stream here through the House Judiciary Committee’s YouTube channel.

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