CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google to testify before the US Congress

via Flickr © toridawnrector (CC BY-SA 2.0)

via Flickr © toridawnrector (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • A final hand of poker in the Last Chance Saloon. Losers face investigation, regulation, reform
  • All four execs will give evidence together to antitrust panel of the House Judiciary Committee
  • Together in concert for the first time - but not all may sing from the same hymn sheet 
  • Virtual appearances likely rather than in person but a potential spanking's a spanking for all that

The date is tentative, we know no more other than that it will be in late July, but the stage is now set for Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai to appear, on the same bill, on the same day, at the same place, at the same time, to answer some pointed questions about their respective companies, their market power and the ways in which they are run.

The CEOs of Apple, Facebook and Google are old hands at the smoke and mirrors game but it's the first time for Jeff Bezos. He has eventually - and reluctantly - agreed to attend the hearing but only did so after being threatened that he would face a subpoena and be forced to appear if he would not do so voluntarily.

The Big Four digital companies have grown so big and overweening that they seem to regard themselves as invincibles, more or less immune to meaningful policing and regulation because their technologies, apps and services underpin so much of the global economy.

They seem to think they are like Norðri, Suðri, Austri and Vestri, the four wizards of ancient Norse mythology who support the four cardinal points of the heavenly dome and keep the sky from falling in on the heads of us ordinary mortals. They're not and one day, maybe quite soon, they'll find that out. Meanwhile it's up to you to decide which of the four CEO's most closely resembles which dwarfish Viking character. Look 'em up. It's a diverting game for a wet Thursday during the time of the plague.

In the past the CEOs have found it easy to bat away the gently lobbed questions of panel members and it will be interesting to see if this latest exercise will be yet another walk in the park or perhaps be a bit more like running the gauntlet. The hearing is particularly important because it is the final one in a long-drawn-out, occasional and often inconsequential series before the framing of new anti-trust legislative proposals designed properly to reform and regulate the digital giants.

There's a lot to play for. The examination by the House Judiciary Committee will not, in itself, directly result in enforcement action against the four huge companies. However, it is possible, and now even probable, that investigations may be undertaken not only by the regulators and attorneys-general of individual states, but also by federal authorities.

The backlash against what is perceived as over-dominance of markets by Amazon et al is growing: witness the growing number of companies that are boycotting advertising on Facebook. That punch in the pocket got Mark Zuckerberg out of his booster seat and on to his personal Facebook page to promise big changes in a matter of a couple of hours. Nothing else could.

Meanwhile the US Justice Department considering taking out a potential lawsuit against Google alleging that anticompetitive practices are rife and the norm at the company whilst the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has is investigating alleged antitrust behaviour at Facebook. Meanwhile, authorities in Europe and other parts of the world also have Apple and Amazon in their sights.

Bi-partizan approach by politicians could signal trouble for the Big Four

One US politician who has the big tech companies in the cross-hairs is David Cicilline, the Democratic Representative for Rhode Island. Earlier this year he told the CNBC tv channel that it is "clear the digital marketplace is not functioning properly and there’s not robust competition there." He is pushing hard for legislation to be enacted to bring the likes of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google to heel, to ensure genuine competition and allow new entrants into what are, in essence, de facto monopoly markets. 

He also says, "Tech companies are way too big" and added that a testifying witness put up by Amazon to speak on the company's behalf "may have lied to Congress" about how the company uses data from its third-parties. Furthermore he believes that "Apple iStore app fees are highway robbery" and that the company acts "like a monopolist and a bully."

The Chairman of the full Judiciary Committee is Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat representing the 10th Congressional District of New York. Like other committees it is often split across party political lines but, unusually in this case, both Democrat and Republican members have indicated that they could work together to cut the giant tech companies down to size. Republicans want to have a go at them because of complaints by President Donald Trump that the likes of Facebook are biased against conservatives and conservative viewpoints and opinions while Democrats want to see better policing and control of hate speech and extreme right-wing postings, both written and in video.

The Committee has already demanded sight of what is described as "an exhaustive" list of documents to be submitted before the hearing covering areas as diverse as acquisition policies and tactics, data privacy, overcharging and the private/confidential emails sent and received by senior executives of all four companies.

So, this time, perhaps better prepared and with some sort of common agreement between committee members the hearing could, for once, be a full-on public grilling of the CEOs of four of the five biggest digital technology companies by market value. That said, previous hearings were disappointing. Few interviewees were properly hooked and most witnesses simply swam around the committee in leisurely circles before going back home and continuing to do business in exactly the same ways they had done before.

If the anti-trust strategy fails, and it might, alternative regulatory approaches such as putting limits on the amount of data the companies gather, have, can keep and how they are manipulated and users are targeted may be imposed. Or, in extremis, a government-imposed break-up of the Big Four into separate smaller companies might be the answer - although that would be anathema to Republicans.

However it all turns out it should make for compulsive viewing.

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