5 things to watch as tech CEOs take center stage

The CEOs of America’s largest tech companies are set to testify before Congress on Wednesday in what will be one of the biggest head-to-head confrontations between Silicon Valley and Washington.

The testimony is part of a House Judiciary subcommittee’s investigation into competition in digital marketplaces launched last year, but other issues are likely to come up.

Here are five things to watch.


How will CEOs handle questions on their concentrated power

Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google have also seen their size and influence grow significantly — even during the coronavirus pandemic — and their corporate leaders are likely to face questions from both sides of the aisle about their growing power.

“A handful of technology platform giants have come to exert far too much power over consumer commerce and communications,” said George Slover, senior policy counsel at Consumer Reports. “This extreme level of market concentration harms consumers, depriving people of competitive choices, fair and transparent prices, and a meaningful diversity of views.”

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who leads a company that has nearly surpassed Walmart as the world’s largest retailer and that also runs a web services business that the government relies on, has stressed that his company represents a “low single-digit percentage of the retail market” that helps third-party sellers compete.

Apple’s Tim Cook, whose company can nearly single-handedly decide the future of applications, is likely to face questions about how the company uses its market position to extract funds from developers.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is the executive with the most appearances before Congress. He is likely to point to competition from other social media sites and stress the platform’s professed objectivity to rebut claims about undue influence.

Finally, Google’s Sundar Pichai will have to play defense against allegations that Google has used its search position to prioritize its own services in search results.


How will Bezos handle his congressional debut

Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, has raised his D.C. profile, but this will be his first time testifying to Congress.

While he has delegated political issues to subordinates, including senior vice president of worldwide operations Dave Clark and former Obama press secretary Jay Carney, on Wednesday he will have to engage lawmakers head on.

Bezos will likely face questions about one of his employees, associate general counsel Nate Sutton, who told the House Judiciary Committee last year that Amazon does not use data from third-party sellers to boost its products.

A Wall Street Journal report earlier this year claimed that the company used information from other sellers on the platform to make decisions regarding its private label business, which includes more than 243,000 products.

The company’s treatment of its warehouse workers, many of whom have been killed by COVID-19, is also likely to be scrutinized.


Judiciary’s investigation of marketplace competition

Wednesday’s hearing will be the first time lawmakers will be able to use documents from the probe launched by the antitrust subcommittee to both guide questioning and corner CEOs.

The probe has included hundreds of hours of calls, meetings and briefings and the review of 1.3 million documents from companies. Questions from lawmakers could offer hints about what to expect in the report.

Sarah Miller, director of the anti-monopoly American Economic Liberties Project, said Tuesday that the hearing could end up filling in any remaining holes in the investigation.

“One thing that we’ll be looking for tomorrow, because this is an evidentiary hearing, in which members of the subcommittee are going to be asking very specific questions on a year-long investigation, is whether or not [the CEOs] are forthcoming, and if they are not, the subcommittee should move quickly to issue subpoenas and get the information that they need to complete the investigation,” she told reporters.

The report could be hugely influential and could be released at the same time that the Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general all also wrap up their investigations into Big Tech companies.

At the least, the subcommittee’s work makes it much more prepared for the hearing than other panels have been when quizzing Big Tech companies.


How the CEOs handle questions about racism and bias

The national discussion and renewed scrutiny on racism following the police killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests that continue months later has affected the companies testifying Wednesday as well.

Amazon earlier this year placed a one-year moratorium on sales of facial recognition to police amid rising criticism of the technology’s bias against racial minorities and women.

The company has also been criticized for its treatment of minorities working in warehouses, including some it has fired after organizing strikes.

Facebook is in the midst of a massive advertiser boycott in response to its handling of hate speech on the platform.

Zuckerberg’s hands-off approach to content from political figures, especially from President Trump, has also been met with internal dissatisfaction.

Google will also likely face questions about a report from The Markup last week which found the search platform offered hundreds of pornographic keyword suggestions related to “Black girls,” “Latina girls” and “Asian Girls” to advertisers, while searches for “White girls” and “White boys” returned no results.


Questions about the 2020 election

Big tech companies have taken dramatic steps to improve their election security capabilities after receiving heavy criticism for their role in the disinformation surrounding the 2016 elections.

With less than 100 days to go before this year’s elections, this will be the best chance for executives to assure lawmakers that those issues have been resolved.

Zuckerberg especially should expect to be quizzed on the platform’s political ad policy. The company does not currently fact check political advertisements while allowing groups to target hyper-specific groups of users, a combination that critics say is ripe for those who want to take advantage.

China could figure into this discussion, both as a threat to spread election misinformation and the home of many of the companies’ strongest competitors.

The executives may use their time before Congress to contrast their models and practices with Chinese companies as a way to justify their market power.

Tags Donald Trump Jeff Bezos Mark Zuckerberg

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