Home US Why the tech giants may suffer lasting pain from their Hill lashing

Why the tech giants may suffer lasting pain from their Hill lashing

Want the full play-by-play? Check out POLITICO’s live coverage. With that, here are five top takeaways of what we learned Wednesday.

1) Democrats came ready, and with plenty of evidence

The House antitrust subcommittee has spent a year on this investigation — collecting emails and confidential presentations, locating chat records, and reassuring small competitors that it’s safe to tell them of their stories of the Big Four. And some of the subcommittee’s top Democrats came prepared with that evidence, in a coordinated effort to poke holes in Zuckerberg’s, Bezos’, Pichai’s and Cook’s contentions that they compete fully in the letter and spirit of U.S. antitrust law.

Take Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s (D-Wash.) back-and-forth with Zuckerberg over whether he’d threatened Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom before eventually buying the company for a billion dollars in 2012. Jayapal pulled up a chat between Systrom and an investor in which the Instagram co-founder floated the possibility that Zuckerberg “will go into destroy mode if I say no.”

When Zuckerberg disputed the congresswoman’s characterization of those events, Jayapal swung back with a classic bit of congressional theater: “I’d like to remind you that you’re under oath.” Underscoring the point, the subcommittee published a cache of its investigative materials, including the full Systrom chat log, midway through the hearing — a way of extending the five-hour-plus hearing’s shelf-life even longer.

In the same vein, committee members hit Bezos with emails illuminating Amazon’s motivation for buying the smart doorbell company Ring; wrote Bezos in that correspondence, “To be clear, my view here is we are buying market position — not technology.”

2) Republicans are more interested in tech bias than antitrust

The hearing got off to a bang when Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) brought out his outdoor voice to recite a litany of alleged examples of anti-conservative bias, including on the part of Twitter, whose CEO Jordan had made a show of attempting to invite to the hearing.

Perhaps anticipating Jordan would have a go at hijacking the hearing, was primed to shut him down: He quickly swatted away Jordan’s attempt to enlist a fellow Republican not on the subcommittee to question the CEOs on their threats to “freedom.”

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That put to rest any notion that the tech executives were facing a unified bipartisan front ready to drill down on antitrust abuses.

Jordan later tried again, attempting to go to the ropes with Google CEO Pichai over whether his company would play fair during the 2020 election. Pichai seemed somewhat befuddled by Jordan’s line of questioning, eventually promising that, yes, Google would play things neutral. Pichai was let off the hook when the right to question passed to Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.), who opened with a shot at “fringe conspiracy theories.”

Jordan objected, loudly, but the hearing moved on.

Republicans did get traction here and there. Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), for example, got into a robust exchange with Pichai on the ins-and-outs of how the company’s ad tools interact with the YouTube platform it owns. When Pichai said the company’s approach was more sensitive to users’ data-security concerns than other models, Kelly shot back that Google was using privacy as “a cudgel to beat down the competition.”

But even Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), who has recently carved out a lane as a thoughtful conservative critic of Silicon Valley, touched on how Amazon engages with competitors before veering off onto a round of getting each of the CEOs to commit to not sell products produced using “slave labor.”

And while the hearing produced few of the full-out tech gaffes that Congress has become known for, top subcommittee Republican Jim Sensenbrenner notched one when he asked Zuckerberg about why presidential son Donald Trump Jr.’s social media account was recently taken down for a short time over a controversial hydroxychloroquine video. But that controversy involved Trump’s Twitter account, not Facebook. (Zuckerberg sidestepped the platform misidentification, using it as a moment to point out that Facebook is pointedly pro-“free expression.”)

3) Facebook’s still vulnerable

Zuckerberg was the target of perhaps the day’s toughest questioning, not simply from Jayapal but other from Democrats who homed in on Facebook’s billion-dollar acquisition of Instagram in 2012. Their premise: that Zuckerberg saw the photo-sharing platform not as a neat startup that would round out Facebook’s own image-sharing tools but a potential existential threat — one whose absorption, then, potentially violated U.S. competition law.

New York Democrat Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the full Judiciary Committee, laid into Zuckerberg on the topic, again using internal communications in making his case. Nadler pointed out that according to documents in the subcommittee’s hands, Zuckerberg was prompted to dig out his checkbook because he worried that “Instagram could “meaningfully hurt us without becoming a huge business,” and that by buying the still-small company, “what we’re really buying is time.”

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