Big tech CEOs’ at­tempt to gaslight law­mak­ers falls flat

Daily Southtown (Sunday) - - BUSINESS - By Kevin Roose

When Mark Zucker­berg ap­peared in front of Congress two years ago, the Face­book chief ex­ec­u­tive’s mem­o­rable re­tort to a clue­less ques­tioner was, “Se­na­tor, we run ads.” Af­ter Wed­nes­day’s marathon ap­pear­ance by Zucker­berg and three other tech ti­tans at a House hear­ing on com­pe­ti­tion in the tech in­dus­try, a more fitting quote might be, “Con­gress­woman, I’m not sure what you would mean by ‘threaten.’ ”

That was Zucker­berg’s eva­sive an­swer to a ques­tion asked by Rep. Pramila Jaya­pal, D-Wash., about whether Face­book had ever threat­ened to squash smaller com­peti­tors by copy­ing their prod­ucts if they wouldn’t let Face­book ac­quire them.

It was a good ques­tion with a clear-cut an­swer. Face­book’s copy-and-crush ap­proach has been well doc­u­mented for years, and Jaya­pal brought even more re­ceipts — pre­vi­ously undis­closed mes­sages in which Zucker­berg is­sued thinly veiled threats to Kevin Sys­trom, the co-founder of In­sta­gram, about what would hap­pen to his com­pany if he re­fused to sell.

An hon­est Zucker­berg might have replied, “Yes, Con­gress­woman, like most suc­cess­ful tech com­pa­nies, we ac­quire po­ten­tial com­peti­tors all the time and copy the ones we can’t buy. That’s how we’ve avoided go­ing ex­tinct like Mys­pace or Friend­ster, and we’re about to do it again with In­sta­gram Reels, our new TikTok clone.”

That would have been an il­lu­mi­nat­ing an­swer, and one that could have let law­mak­ers in on the kill-orbe-killed ethos of Sil­i­con Val­ley. In­stead, he dodged and weaved, try­ing to ex­plain away the emails without ad­mit­ting the ob­vi­ous.

He did the same thing when Rep. Hank John­son, D-Ga., pressed him for an­swers about Face­book Re­search — an app used to snoop on users’ smart­phone us­age and give Face­book de­tailed data about its com­peti­tors. Zucker­berg ini­tially said he wasn’t fa­mil­iar with the app, even though Ap­ple’s de­ci­sion to bar it from its App Store nearly caused a melt­down at his com­pany last year. (He later said he mis­spoke and that he re­mem­bered it.)

It wasn’t just Zucker­berg. Ev­ery other wit­ness at Wed­nes­day’s hear­ing — Jeff Be­zos of Ama­zon, Sun­dar Pichai of Google and Tim Cook of Ap­ple — also dodged law­mak­ers’ most pointed ques­tions or pro­fessed their ig­no­rance.

The re­sult was a hear­ing that at times felt less like a reck­on­ing than an at­tempted gaslight­ing — a group of savvy ex­ec­u­tives try­ing to con­vince law­mak­ers that the ev­i­dence that their years­long an­titrust in­ves­ti­ga­tion had dug up wasn’t re­ally ev­i­dence of any­thing.

The per­for­mance wasn’t par­tic­u­larly con­vinc­ing. You don’t be­come a tech mogul by be­ing sloppy or for­get­ful, and it strains credulity to imag­ine that th­ese four hy­per­com­pet­i­tive, de­tail-ob­sessed men — all of whom had many weeks to pre­pare for Wed­nes­day’s hear­ing — sim­ply didn’t re­mem­ber ma­jor de­ci­sions they’d made.

In ad­di­tion, many Repub­li­can mem­bers of the sub­com­mit­tee seemed to have no in­ter­est in an­titrust is­sues at all, pre­fer­ring in­stead to ride par­ti­san hobby horses like claims of an­ti­con­ser­va­tive bias on so­cial me­dia.

But it is less clear that a say-noth­ing strat­egy will con­tinue to work, now that law­mak­ers have be­gun do­ing their homework. Sure, some mem­bers of Congress may still need their iPhones ex­plained to them, but there is real ex­per­tise on Capi­tol Hill that wasn’t there even a year ago, and new al­lies who are will­ing to give Congress the am­mu­ni­tion it needs.

At cer­tain mo­ments Wed­nes­day, each of the four tech ex­ec­u­tives ap­peared to be taken off guard by the rigor and depth of the ques­tions they faced. If they were ex­pect­ing to teach Tech 101 to a group of clue­less law­mak­ers, they in­stead found them­selves in the prin­ci­pal’s of­fice, con­fronted with ev­i­dence of the spit­balls they’d thrown. And they must have re­al­ized, in those mo­ments, that they were see­ing the begin­nings of ac­count­abil­ity.

OLIVIER DOULIERY/ABACA PRESS 2018

Face­book CEO Mark Zucker­berg was one of four big tech CEOs to ap­pear be­fore Congress this week.

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