The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing featuring the CEOs of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet on July 27. One purpose of the hearing appears to be to set the stage for the release of a committee staff report that, according to rumors, will recommend changing laws so that antitrust officials can pursue these companies more aggressively.
Committee hearings allow members of Congress to question witnesses, but often members’ opinions are already set and the questions are more like testimony. What if the tables were turned and the CEOs could ask questions of the members? Here are five questions the CEOs might ask.
1) Do you believe that it is wrong for a company to serve all customers who want its service?
Each of these companies was built by entrepreneurs, investors, and customers. No special government privileges were involved. Every customer that uses one of these companies’ services chooses it above all others. So, any government action that would shrink any of these companies would make users and customers worse off. Why would we want that?
2) Suppose the US antitrust authorities did break up Big Tech firms or otherwise reduce our numbers of customers. Who benefits?
Eight of Forbes’ 2019 top 10 tech companies (based on market value) were from the US. South Korea (Samsung) and China (Tencent) hosted the other two companies. In 2020, Investopedia listed its top 10 tech companies based on total revenue. Six US companies made that top 10. The others were from South Korea (Samsung), Taiwan (Foxconn), and Japan (Sony and Panasonic). Shrinking the US companies would expand the leadership of companies from South Korea, China, Taiwan, and Japan. Why harm Americans to benefit these companies?
3) Some people want American antitrust laws to be more like those in Europe. What would that mean for America’s economy and security?
Notice that none of the top 10 tech companies are from Europe, even though Europeans have technical talent. The reality is that Europe’s laws are not friendly to business development. Even outside of tech, European companies perform poorly against the rest of the world on average. According to a Statista ranking of companies by market value, eight of the 10 largest companies in the world were US companies in 2019. The two that were not American were Chinese: Alibaba and Tencent. Why would we want our businesses to be less successful than China’s? How would that affect the security of our tech infrastructure?
4) America is a world leader in innovation, in part because entrepreneurs believe they can become the next Amazon, or convince an already successful company to adopt their ideas. What would happen to American innovation if laws effectively capped companies’ growth potential or cut off opportunities to sell innovations?
Successful tech companies are, by nature, large and profitable. Tech often has economies of scale, so successful companies tend to be large. Failure rates of tech startups are quite high — 90 percent — so there needs to be a potential for successful companies to generate substantial profits. It is important that entrepreneurs dream of creating a new member of Big Tech or to join with an existing member. Each of the four companies testifying has stayed independent, but Yahoo offered to buy Facebook and had a chance to buy Google. Facebook made Instagram successful. And Google has made Waze even bigger. Why should American laws discourage innovators from dreaming big?
5) Every year, billions of people communicate using our products and services. Some of us are pressed every day to filter that communication, and we have willingly accepted that challenge. But this raises a question: When should the people who want to limit communications be allowed to control the marketplace of ideas?
Tech companies have found themselves in untenable positions during pandemics, emergencies, elections, and the like: They are expected to suppress the false and elevate the true. They are held to account for this even while people mistake opinions for facts and emotions for truth, experts are uncertain and biased, and the people judging the tech companies’ performances are biased.
It is good for people to struggle with competing ideas, including false ones. As Abigail Adams wrote to her son, John Quincy Adams, “The Habits (sic) of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties.” Under what circumstances should government officials quarantine ideas or minds?
(Disclosure statement: Mark Jamison provided consulting for Google in 2012 regarding whether Google should be considered a public utility.)