On Wednesday, the CEOs of the four companies — a group that includes two of the world’s richest men — are due to appear before the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel to answer allegations that the companies are too dominant or have harmed competition, each in their own ways. In a pandemic-driven twist, the CEOs will appear together, on one panel, via videoconference. (Initially scheduled for Monday, the hearing was postponed in light of Rep. John Lewis’s funeral.)
It will be the first antitrust hearing of its kind since Gates’ visit to Capitol Hill in 1998. And some policy experts anticipate that history could repeat itself, as the biggest of Big Tech face a range of antitrust probes by state and federal officials, as well as the European Union.
“The more that the members of the Judiciary Committee land punches on any of these companies, the more pressure it puts on antitrust enforcers to move aggressively with their investigations,” said Gene Kimmelman, a former Justice Department antitrust official and senior adviser to Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group.
Senior committee aides say they are determined to keep the hearing focused on substance, gathering the evidence of Big Tech’s enormous power that could lay the groundwork for action, including new legislation. But with the tech giants playing defense on so many fronts, particularly in a high-stakes political season, the potential is high for a dramatic showdown, though one possibly tempered by its unusual logistics.
Why Silicon Valley is under fire
Unlike in Microsoft’s case — which focused on how the company was using Windows to gain an unfair advantage in Web browsers and other types of software — the businesses taking the hot seat on Wednesday face a much wider range of complaints. It’s a reflection of how dramatically the tech industry has expanded to fill virtually every corner of our lives, going beyond computing to include groceries, health monitoring, transportation and other everyday activities.
The CEOs’ testimony will now flesh out that record in a highly visible fashion, marking what one committee aide described as the “final stretch” in the investigation.
Each of the businesses has pushed back on the antitrust claims, with some stressing the competition they do face — often referring to each other, or to the growing economic power of Chinese companies — or carefully noting that many of their services are free to consumers or available at very low cost. (For decades, a key preoccupation of antitrust law has been the effect of corporate behavior on consumer prices. More recently, some experts have questioned whether courts have focused too narrowly on price effects, particularly in an era of powerful, data-driven advertising.)
The companies didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment for this story.
In some sense, the hearings can be viewed as a culmination of years of mounting scrutiny and criticism of the tech industry’s impact on privacy, civil discourse, hate speech and elections. But those issues may have less to do with specific antitrust claims than a perception that the platforms have simply become essential services. Still, even though those issues are less directly tied to competition, many analysts widely expect them to be raised at the hearing.
How tech companies may defend themselves
The four CEOs will vigorously argue, much as Gates did, that their companies have enabled countless other businesses to form and thrive. And lawmakers will play their role, seeking to poke holes in the executives’ logic and catch them unprepared.
The overall impression the hearing will create is a sense of momentum, Hansson argued, one that could pave the way for an antitrust lawsuit from the Justice Department — which is probing Google — or state attorneys general, who have separate investigations ongoing into Google and Facebook.
“I think the event itself is more important than what any individual executive is going to say,” Hansson said. “What’s so wild is, we’ve essentially gone 25 years without any material antitrust enforcement in technology since the Microsoft case. All of a sudden, we’re just sitting on a buffet of antitrust enforcement.”