Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, testified at the hearing on Wednesday about antitrust law and the technology industry from a distance.
Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google CEOs may have felt comfortable in their own four walls (or boring corporate offices) on Wednesday, but faced uncomfortable legislative questions on both sides of the aisle. The grilling took place as part of a hearing on possible antitrust violations held by members of Congress on the House's Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law.
Legislators provided examples of potentially anticompetitive behavior by technology giants, and had executives look for general answers in which they usually did not know or deny the activity or characterize it. "I disagree with your premise" was an often repeated chorus.
There was also a lot of stance on issues that split along the party lines. For example, lawmakers accused Facebook of either silencing conservative media or promoting manipulation of Russian elections. When MP Jim Jordan was repeatedly instructed to stop talking and put his mask back on, the Ohio Republican called on problems to the treatment of former national security advisor Michael Flynn.
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However, the hearing continued to focus on big questions about fairness in the technology industry – whether the giants are too big and whether they should be disbanded.
"These companies, as they exist today, have monopoly powers," said Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline at the end of the hearing. "Some have to be dissolved, all have to be properly regulated and held accountable. We have to make sure that the antitrust laws that were enacted more than a century ago are working in the digital age."
How Congress will put its concerns into practice is of course a very different question. Here's why lawmakers are so concerned and what they might be able to do about it.
What was the point of the hearing?
Legislators were concerned with whether huge technology companies have too much control over the entire industry. With this force, technology giants can close competitors or distort markets. Legislators fear that this power could stifle big tech innovations and reduce consumer choice, which could push up prices.
We usually call that monopoly power, and it's not just a board game in which one person slowly grinds everyone else to dust by charging rent on Broadway. Monopoly power can harm ordinary people by making goods and services more expensive, wages stagnant and preventing new products from entering the market.
It is also illegal to pursue or maintain a monopoly using shameful means under federal antitrust law, including the Sherman Antitrust Act and others.
What is the Sherman Antitrust Act?
The Sherman Antitrust Act was passed to prevent companies from taking inappropriate steps to become or persist as monopolies. This includes making backroom deals or conspiring to set prices or wages. This also includes horizontal control of the market, so that product manufacturers have no choice.
Look at that:
Tech CEOs vs. Congress: Everything you need to know
As the cornerstone of US antitrust law, the law dates back to 1890, when the federal government dissolved the industrial giants of the late 19th century, also known as the gilded age. Huge "trusts" monopolized the steel, meat and especially the oil industry.
The trusts controlled every aspect of the launch of these products and found ways to gain unfair advantages over competitors in order to maintain their status. Journalist Ida Tarbell documented how Standard Oil used its power to pay less for shipping its products by rail than the competition.
What has Big Tech reportedly done?
Legislators presented evidence on Wednesday that described examples of potentially anti-competitive behavior by all technology companies represented at the hearing.
The examples included buying from Amazon and. There was also the power of Facebook to win over competitors like Instagram and WhatsApp or to force them to compete with similar products from the deeply pocketed social network. Legislature , especially the company's ability to dominate competitors in the online advertising world as it also has an advertising platform.
After all, Apple couldn't escape without control over the company's app store, giving it the ability to push out apps that compete with its own services.
Can the Congress Dissolve a Technology Company?
Legislators considered whether the technology giants should be split up into smaller companies to improve competition.
What would it look like? Instead of being an advertising powerhouse for Google, which, for example, also displays a large part of the online ads via its search engine, it could hypothetically be divided into one company that sells advertising space and another company that places ads.
Congress cannot take this step alone. The Sherman Act and other antitrust laws are enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice, which can investigate, punish, and bring companies to justice. In 1998 the government initiated a longstanding case that was limitedfor years. However, lawmakers can continue to take measures to increase the likelihood of enforcement.
OK, but can the congress really be non-partisan?
It is unclear whether Congress can now pass bipartisan laws at a time when democracy-republican cooperation is scarce. But there are signs that the legislator could really take action. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle took the question of the power of big tech seriously on Wednesday and left no doubt that they were concerned.
What would a cross-party action look like? Congress could write new laws that strengthen antitrust laws and tailor them to an online economy. Legislators could also find new ways to fund regulators and provide more resources for corporate accountability when they break the law.
If they don't do anything, someone else could. US President Donald Trump has also called for action. In a tweet on Wednesday morning, he said Congress had to take action against big tech, though it did not specify what the action should look like. If lawmakers do nothing, Trump tweeted, "I'll do it myself with executive orders."