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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Apple CEO Tim Cook will all face questioning from Congress in a hearing Wednesday.
The hearing is the latest development of a year-long Congressional investigation into online market competition.
Here’s what you need to know about why it’s happening, why it’s important, and what could come of it.
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What is all of this about anyway?
Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon are being investigated for potential antitrust violations. That means lawmakers are trying to figure out whether the companies have used anti-competitive business practices designed to stifle smaller competitors and to maintain a monopoly of the markets. Antitrust laws have a century-old history in the US for keeping such mega-corporations across various sectors — oil, railroad, finance — from getting too big and powerful. But these laws aren’t yet well-suited to apply to tech firms at the forefront of 21st-century innovation.
How long has this been going on?
This hearing is just one pit stop in an antitrust investigation that Congress has been conducting for over a year. Smaller competitors on the rise have testified in front of the House Judiciary subcommittee since June alleging the big four’s use of anti-competitive business practices.
Why is this important?
This hearing is the first time the four CEOs will testify at the same Congressional hearing. And it’s the first time Bezos, the richest person in the world with a net worth of $171.6 billion, will testify before Congress. But most notably, this is one of the first steps toward laying the groundwork for antitrust regulation in the tech world. The hearing also comes as the industry continues to reel from the “Techlash,” or widespread backlash against tech that especially picked up steam in 2018. Issues such as user data privacy, abuse of power, and the role these firms can play in influencing political outcomes have contributed to a growing animosity and weariness of big tech.
Who exactly will be testifying, or giving their testimonials?
The CEOs of the American technology industry’s most powerful companies. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Apple’s Tim Cook will all be in attendance, likely virtually. Lawmakers have also called upon Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to attend the hearing in light of the widespread hack that took over the site on July 15. The hack exposed Twitter’s vulnerability to security breaches. It’s still unclear whether or not Dorsey will attend.
And what are they being investigated for specifically?
They’re appearing together in the same hearing, but each company isn’t necessarily being probed for the exact same thing.
Lawmakers will likely question Google in regard to its iron grip on the ad and search market. Apple is being investigated over claims that it gives its own apps special treatment over third parties in its App Store. Facebook is in the spotlight for the acquisitions it has made in recent years of would-be competitors, namely WhatsApp, Instagram, and Giphy. And Amazon will be probed for potentially promoting its own brands ahead of third-party sellers.
If each company is being accused of different antitrust violations, why are they doing a joint hearing?
The House representatives involved in the antitrust investigation chose to question the four CEOs together. But as Protocol notes, doing so may not be as effective as if they testified separately, which would have allowed lawmakers to tailor their questions more specifically to each company instead of doing a blanket inquiry.
What’s going to happen during the hearing?
The lawmakers will take turns grilling the CEOs with their questions, many of which may overlap. The questions will probe the executives into laying out aspects of their business practices, and the CEOs in turn will attempt to make the case for why they aren’t infringing on the competition.
It’s unclear which order the CEOs will be questioned in or whether they’ll be questioned one at a time or alternately. This type of hearing can sometimes go on for hours.
Is this the first time this has happened?
The four CEOs appearing together in an antitrust hearing, yes. But this isn’t the first time an antitrust investigation has taken over the tech world. In the late 1990s, Microsoft was hit with an antitrust lawsuit as the Seattle firm began gaining dominance in the internet market. A federal judge ruled that the company was indeed in violation, and Microsoft reached a settlement with the government in 2001, but the case has gone down in history as one of the more high-profile examples of the effect that antitrust laws can have on tech.
What will happen afterward? Will they be found guilty of something?
The hearing isn’t a trial with a verdict. Instead, it’s for lawmakers to question the tech execs and gather evidence through their testimonies that can inform the subcommittee’s ongoing investigation. But the broader investigation could eventually result in legislation designed to keep tech companies from growing too large and powerful.
Can I watch the hearing?
Yes. The hearing is scheduled to take place at Washington, DC’s Rayburn House Office Building at the Capitol, but it’ll be live-streamed on the House Judiciary Committee’s YouTube channel. Click here to watch it.
Per the hearing notice, lawmakers and witnesses are allowed to attend virtually. Sources told Reuters that the four CEOs will do exactly that, so you may not see them in a courtroom. Instead, they’ll likely be tuning in via video.
When is this happening?
It’s now slated for Wednesday, July 29 at noon ET, or 9 a.m. PT, according to the House Judiciary website. It was originally scheduled for Monday but postponed due to a memorial service for Rep. John Lewis, who will lie in state at the US Capitol this week.
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