5 questions for the Big Tech CEOs

On Monday, the House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing featuring the CEOs of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet. Such hearings always evoke drama: The New York Times describes it as Congress uniting to take aim at the companies. Politico describes the power struggles in Congress and between advocacy groups over the shape of the hearing. MarketWatch calls it a grilling of the CEOs.

via Reuters

In addition to providing drama, hearings sometimes can reveal how witnesses think and the challenges they face, and expose what is at stake for the country. Here are five questions the committee might ask the CEOs and my thoughts on how they might respond.

1. People accuse you of being monopolies facing no serious competition. Name your three most significant competitors and how antitrust agencies can objectively know they are truly competitive threats.

Competition in tech is different than in other sectors: It moves faster and is future oriented, and competitive pressure comes from various directions. I describe these and other differences here and here and in recent law journal articles (here and here). This novelty can cause some to see illusions of monopoly. For the benefit of Congress, the CEOs should explain in clear terms (with concrete evidence) that they face meaningful competitive pressure.

2. Most people understand that the tech industry is about disruption. Who are the new disruptors that could change the shape of this industry?

Competition for the future means existing companies and startups are racing to create the next big thing. Apple did this in creating the iPhone, Google did so in redefining search, etc. There are new companies that seem to believe tech markets are ripe for the picking. TikTok was launched less than four years ago and is now ninth in active users among social network sites, ahead of LinkedIn, Twitter, and Snapchat. It is growing faster than Facebook did when it started.

Two years ago, Zoom’s share of video conferencing services was 25 percent. Now, its customer growth rate is over 350 percent, and its share has climbed to 36 percent. For the benefit of Congress, the CEOs should explain that no tech company, no matter how large, can rest on its laurels, and that this benefits consumers.

3. Suppose we expanded the authority of antitrust agencies, so much so that they could legally break up Big Tech companies. Who would benefit?

I’ve written about this from a business success perspective, indicating that companies from Asia would benefit significantly. The CEOs might also want to point out that expanding antitrust could be a win for those that want to politicize antitrust (i.e. use the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission to go after enemies). We have already seen how politicizing the IRS, FBI, banking regulation, and the appointment of judges has deepened the country’s political divide. For the benefit of Congress, the CEOs should explain that consumers benefit when the companies compete for customers rather than gratify politicized enforcement agencies.

4. Some social media platforms are filtering, adding to, or taking from content posted by some users. Putting aside questions of political bias, a more important question is whether this moderation is contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of Section 230 (of the Communications Decency Act). What legal standards should Congress establish so that it is clear when platforms are simply hosting others’ information versus when platforms are doing more than that?

It appears that Section 230 has been essential for much of the innovation in social media and other platforms. I have argued before that great intellectual growth requires grappling with uncomfortable ideas, even false or hateful ones. But as long as tech companies are involved in trying to shape the content on their platforms, there is need for clarity on what content modification is or isn’t allowed under Section 230. For the benefit of Congress, the CEOs should explain which actions should be protected from liability and which should not.

5. Some of you are accused of hindering rivals by discriminating against them. Recent accusations include those against Apple for its app store, Google for its algorithms, and Amazon for its Marketplace, all supported with anecdotal evidence. What counterexamples do you have of companies that are able to exist, or are more successful, because of the services you have provide?

It’s easy to tell stories about businesses that believe they would be more successful if a Big Tech company had behaved differently. Victimhood can make a compelling story, even when it’s untrue. But the futures of many businesses are at stake in this debate.

If any of these Big Tech firms are forcibly made less successful, small businesses that have been built using Big Tech APIs and advertising capabilities will be threatened. For the benefit of Congress, the CEOs should be ready with compelling stories of entrepreneurs, communities, and employees who have benefited because the cost of starting and growing a business is lower now than ever before.

For the benefit of the country, I hope the CEOs are ready
and that the members of the committee are open to learning.

(Disclosure statement: Mark Jamison provided consulting for Google in 2012 regarding whether Google should be considered a public utility.)

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