Power on parade

What will be gained when the world’s tech ti­tans are grilled by US Congress?

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Front Page - Robin Pag­na­menta

It should have been day five of the Olympic Games in Ja­pan: an op­por­tu­nity for hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple to binge on ath­letic dis­ci­plines they had been only dimly aware of for the past four years.

But while we will now have to wait another year to en­joy com­pe­ti­tions in artis­tic swim­ming, shot put, ham­mer throw­ing and rhythmic gym­nas­tics, at least on July 27 view­ers around the world will have the op­por­tu­nity to livestream another rare spec­ta­cle: the bosses of the world’s most pow­er­ful tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies be­ing grilled by the US Congress.

Grab the pop­corn. The house ju­di­ciary an­titrust sub­com­mit­tee’s ques­tion­ing of Amazon’s Jeff Be­zos, Face­book’s Mark Zucker­berg, Google’s Sun­dar Pichai and Ap­ple’s Tim Cook is likely to make for good tele­vi­sion. It’s un­likely, how­ever, to achieve much in terms of safe­guard­ing con­sumers or tack­ling anti-com­pet­i­tive be­hav­iour.

That’s be­cause while politi­cians have shown them­selves ea­ger to con­vene and host hear­ings of this kind, they have been fee­ble at us­ing them to achieve any­thing help­ful be­yond the kind of grand­stand­ing and pul­pit bul­ly­ing at that they ex­cel.

In fair­ness, the panel has scored a coup by man­ag­ing to per­suade all four men to ap­pear on the same day – es­pe­cially Be­zos, the world’s rich­est man, who has never pre­vi­ously sub­mit­ted him­self to this kind of scru­tiny. But the for­mat – a sin­gle af­ter­noon ses­sion of ques­tion­ing, prob­a­bly via video con­fer­ence rather than in per­son – and the hear­ing’s vague ti­tle of “On­line Plat­forms and Mar­ket Power: Ex­am­in­ing the Dom­i­nance of Amazon, Face­book, Google and Ap­ple” aren’t ex­actly a promis­ing start.

Put to­gether, these four com­pa­nies have a com­bined mar­ket value of $4.8 tril­lion (£3.8 tril­lion) – about 70pc more than the $2.8 tril­lion an­nual GDP of the UK and well over dou­ble the mar­ket value of the en­tire FTSE 100.

They dom­i­nate vast swathes of the global econ­omy, from smart­phones to on­line ad­ver­tis­ing, cloud com­put­ing to ecom­merce, and wield huge and grow­ing in­flu­ence over vir­tu­ally ev­ery facet of our lives – from the way we buy goods and ser­vices to the way we ac­cess news and in­for­ma­tion, to how we ed­u­cate our chil­dren or care for the sick. But they are also very dif­fer­ent busi­nesses that bear sur­pris­ingly lit­tle in com­mon with each other. Lump­ing them to­gether into an amor­phous mass la­belled “Big Tech” is an el­e­men­tary mis­take that has been made many times be­fore.

It risks los­ing pre­cious fo­cus in a highly time-com­pressed for­mat and it of­fers the ex­ec­u­tives them­selves the op­por­tu­nity to ob­fus­cate and hide be­hind each other.

In truth, each one of these chief ex­ec­u­tives would prob­a­bly de­serve a week of foren­sic ques­tion­ing on spe­cific ar­eas of their cor­po­rate ac­tiv­ity. But the high com­mis­sions charged to third-party de­vel­op­ers on Ap­ple’s App Store is an en­tirely dif­fer­ent is­sue to the mar­ket dom­i­nance of Amazon Web Ser­vices, its highly prof­itable cloud com­put­ing arm, or the stran­gle­hold over dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing en­joyed by Google and Face­book – or the is­sues around data min­ing and pri­vacy linked to the grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity of home voice as­sis­tants like Alexa. In­stead, well briefed by the world’s most ex­pen­sive lawyers and PR ex­perts and with only about an hour each in the spot­light, it’s prob­a­ble that slick oper­a­tors like Be­zos and Cook will ooze charm and bat away most ques­tions with ease.

In the event of awk­ward or dif­fi­cult mo­ments, they will prob­a­bly opt to keep cool and play for time – al­ways the best de­fence for livestream­ed events of this kind where a good tele­vi­sion per­for­mance of­ten turns more on style than sub­stance.

In­deed, the real pres­sure will be on the panel mem­bers to use the time ef­fec­tively, and to show they are prop­erly across the brief and ca­pa­ble of ask­ing chal­leng­ing ques­tions.

In sim­i­lar past hear­ings, it has some­times been the law­mak­ers rather than those be­ing ques­tioned who have been put on the spot.

Re­mem­ber when Zucker­berg last ap­peared be­fore a con­gres­sional hear­ing in 2018, and some of the pan­el­lists were clearly ill-pre­pared?

“Se­na­tor, we run ads,” Zucker­berg re­sponded, when 84-year-old Repub­li­can se­na­tor Or­rin Hatch from Utah asked how Face­book could sus­tain a busi­ness model in which its ser­vices were free. “I see. That’s great,” was Hatch’s red-faced re­sponse.

Politi­cians around the world – in­clud­ing in the UK – have re­peat­edly shown them­selves to be ill-equipped to ask the kind of prob­ing ques­tions nec­es­sary to elicit valu­able answers.

Like Bri­tain’s Com­pe­ti­tion and Markets Au­thor­ity that re­cently pub­lished a year-long re­port on its “dig­i­tal markets strat­egy” – which was as vague and in­ef­fec­tual as it sounds – reg­u­la­tors and politi­cians need to learn that the very real com­pe­ti­tion con­cerns raised by these com­pa­nies are dif­fi­cult to com­pare and highly spe­cific. We need more de­tailed work on spe­cific ar­eas – not broad-brush crit­i­cism of the en­tire in­dus­try.

Of course, there is al­ways the chance the hear­ing could sur­prise with a re­veal­ing mo­ment or an in­sight­ful ex­change.

If the pan­el­lists fail, then – like ath­letes at the Olympic Games – it will be a squan­dered op­por­tu­nity for them and for the rest of us.

In agree­ing to ap­pear this month, Be­zos, Zucker­berg et al will have a pow­er­ful ar­gu­ment that they should not have to do so again for an ex­tended pe­riod – prob­a­bly three or four years.

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