The top executives of four major tech companies—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google—were hauled before Congress on Wednesday; each accused of being an online monopoly that may require government action.
Math, as the $26 trillion national debt might suggest, is not exactly Congress' strong suit.
One thing Congress is quite good at, however, is putting on a show—and Wednesday's hearing of the House Judiciary Committee was more about theatrics than seriously considering the use of antitrust law. Perhaps that's because it's somewhat ridiculous to argue with a straight face that Google or Amazon are actually monopolies, or because it's quite obvious that consumers who dislike Apple's or Facebook's products are perfectly free to give their time, money, and business to competitors on or off the web.
If lawmakers were serious about applying antitrust powers to big tech companies, they'd have to demonstrate that consumers are being actively harmed by anti-competitive behavior. Instead, it quickly became apparent that the real purpose of the hearing was political power.
"I'll just cut to the chase: Big Tech is out to get conservatives," said Rep. Jim Jordan (R–Ohio), the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee. He accused Amazon, Google, and Facebook (and Twitter, which wasn't even represented at Wednesday's hearing) of taking political actions that he disliked. "The power these companies have to impact what happens during an election, what American citizens get to see before voting is pretty darn important," he said, "That's why this committee hearing is important."
That criticism went both ways. A short while later, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D–Md.), who labeled the four CEOs "cyber barons" at one point, complained about Facebook supposedly helping Republicans win elections.
It's almost as if partisans are using the threat of antitrust action to try to force tech firms to take sides. Antitrust laws, it's important to note, do not allow Congress to break up a company because some lawmakers disagree with its politics.
But the clown show masquerading as a serious investigation was only getting started. Granted five minutes to question some of the most important CEOs in the county, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R–Wis.) chose instead to spar with Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg about whether Donald Trump Jr.'s tweets about the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine had been unfairly deleted.
"I think you might be referring to what happened on Twitter," Zuckerberg noted.
One of the few lawmakers who tried to maintain the pretense that Wednesday's affair was about antitrust laws rather than airing random grievances was Rep. Jerry Nadler (D–N.Y.), the committee's chairman. In his opening remarks, Nadler compared the market share and influence of the four tech companies to that of railroads and other heavy industries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
"It's is effectively impossible to use the internet," Nadler said, without relying on services provided by one of the "big four" firms hauled in front of the committee.
The analogy is a bad one. If you were a farmer in a small town in Ohio in 1897 and there was only one railroad serving the town, you were in some ways at the mercy of the railroad—and whatever prices or services it offered. That's not at all how the internet works. If anything, the marketplace created by Amazon or the "app store" created by Apple have increased online competition by giving millions of small businesses and web developers a place to sell their digital goods.
And once you look beyond the digital world, it becomes even more apparent that the antitrust argument against Big Tech is hollow. Amazon isn't just competing with Google for ad revenue online, it's competing against everything from booksellers to grocery stores in the real world. Facebook competes not only against other social networks, but it's messaging service competes against telecom companies. Apple isn't the only, or even the biggest, smartphone manufacturer in the world.
Congress' case against the "big four" tech firms is so flimsy that it's no wonder lawmakers wasted everyone's time on Wednesday by speculating randomly about Google's connections to the Chinese military, accusing Facebook of not doing enough to combat hate speech, or complaining about the companies' algorithms. Rep. Greg Steube (R–Fla.), for example, complained that Gmail, Google's email application, is filing his campaign emails into the "spam" folder. That's the kind of serious issue Wednesday's hearing grappled with.
On the rare occasions that more serious issues were raised, they rarely had anything to do with antitrust law. Raskin, for example, complained that Amazon sometimes puts its own products on sale to undercut competitors—a common business practice, and one that, by definition, wouldn't happen in a monopoly market. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle raised Facebook's acquisition of Instagram, once a major competitor, as if it were proof that Zuckerberg's company was a monopoly.
Tech firms should not be immune to criticism, of course, and that's particularly true if they boost or suppress particular businesses or viewpoints. But those are not remotely close to being antitrust issues—and, in most cases, they aren't issues that require government action at all.
Indeed, the fact that Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google have become successful is an indication that consumers find value in those businesses. Apple CEO Tim Cook noted that customers give the iPhone a 99 percent satisfaction rating. What was the last government program to be nearly as beloved?
More importantly to the antitrust argument, Cook pointed out that Apple built the first "app store" and allows most developers to list their apps for free. "If Apple is a gate-keeper, what we've done is open the gate wider," he said.
"You earn trust slowly, over time, by doing hard things well," Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said during his opening statement. "And by making principled decisions, even when they are unpopular."
Instead of trying to break up big tech firms on specious antitrust grounds, maybe Congress should learn from them.