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