Big tech CEOs’ attempt to gaslight lawmakers falls flat
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.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was one of four big tech CEOs to appear before Congress this week.