The modern-day Titans of Industry testified before Congress Monday ostensibly for a hearing on anti-trust.
The hearing could have been an opportunity for left and right to question the immense market power of organizations that have an inordinate amount of power over the daily lives of American citizens.
All of my optimism for the much-anticipated hearing quickly shot out the window, though, after it suddenly took a dive for the worst and revealed the uselessness of the entire hearing itself. The septuagenarian ranking member of the subcommittee, a Republican, began the afternoon with what proved to be a bad omen—confusing Mark Zuckerberg for the CEO of Twitter (who was not present at the hearing) and asking him questions about censorship on the platform that he did not own.
A complete lack of comprehension on the most basic tenets of the current tech landscape itself was the subtext of nearly the entire hearing. The worst part is, it seemed by design that Republicans focused solely on conservative bias within tech companies, instead of on the sheer size of the firms and their ability to have such an impact on public dialogue in the first place. For example, Republican Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jim Jordan distributed a memo to his colleagues that essentially told them not to focus on anti-trust issues, but rather to focus only on bias. (These two problems, however, are not mutually exclusive but rather mutually reinforcing.)
So, what gives? For starters, focusing on anti-trust issues (the subject of the hearing) might send a message that the GOP is “against capitalism.” The GOP couldn’t be seen as doing something as heretical as that. Worse, some Republican congressmen even rushed to defend the idea of large firms swallowing up the significant portions of the market place itself, lest they be accused of being “against success.”
This, again, is so incredibly foolish—the result of massive, expanding conglomerates like Google or Amazon could very well be the stifling of success and competition for self-starters and middle-class business owners, whose fate rests in being bought out or shut out of the marketplace altogether.
With the familiar lobbyist-written playbook in their hands, the Republicans looked unprepared and insensible in comparison to the Democrats, save for a few. This is no better illustrated than the fact that nearly every single Republican spent their time asking questions only to Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
None of their questions were about market power, but instead about some alleged instances of bias. One Republican Congressman even spent five entire minutes asking Pichai why his emails were not sent to his Dad’s inbox.
What was most especially egregious, though, is that not a single Republican lawmaker had a question for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, and the CEO in charge of arguably the largest sales operation on earth. As Professor Scott Galloway pointed out, 82% of American households have Prime memberships—all together, more people have Prime memberships than those who voted in the 2016 presidential election, those who own a pet, and even more than those who decorate a Christmas tree. At this point, having a Prime membership is as American as apple pie. Simply put, it is in the interest to the American people to know how this company operates.
An hour and a half into the hearing, Democrat Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal of Washington’s 7th district asked Jeff Bezos a critical question: whether they use their data gleamed from customer sales for decisions regarding their private label Amazon Basics. When prompted, Bezos could not guarantee that Amazon had not used that seller data for its private-label sales. Let me be clear: this answer is a scandal, and it is a direct confirmation of news reports from The Wall Street Journal, among others, detailing blatant anti-competitive behavior. And it seemed to be of no interest to Republicans in the committee.
People are concerned about bias and censorship, and I am, too. A virtual monopoly of a few companies can virtually decide whether you exist in the 21st century or not as a content producer, or even as an average citizen.
But that power to pick and choose what is said and heard comes back to their size and strength, or their “bigness,” a term in anti-trust literature that refers to problems that arise when firms are too large in a given marketplace. Bias is just a byproduct of bigness, just as Amazon’s prioritization of their products over independent sellers by using proprietary data is a byproduct of bigness. We also see this in the form of collaboration between massive firms chasing reduced profit by following the Chinese Communist Party’s marching orders. Instead of breaking things down to composite parts of things that Republicans can be concerned about, the better and smarter way forward is to focus on the issue of bigness itself.
It’s not a complicated concept, but in practice, it’s the whole ball game. And the longer the Right deludes itself into thinking that government power is more of a threat to individual liberty than corporate power today, the more they willingly sell out the very people who sent them to Washington to represent them.