Pandemic makes Big Tech even more powerful, warns top U.S. antitrust lawmaker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A much-anticipated congressional hearing featuring the CEOs of four of America’s largest tech firms kicked off on Wednesday with lawmakers locking horns while also offering a window into their ideas about reining in Big Tech.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law on “Online Platforms and Market Power” in the Rayburn House office Building on Capitol Hill, in Washington, U.S., July 29, 2020. Mandel Ngan/Pool via REUTERS

Facebook Inc’s (FB.O) Mark Zuckerberg, Inc’s (AMZN.O) Jeff Bezos, Alphabet Inc (GOOGL.O)-owned Google’s Sundar Pichai and Apple Inc’s APPL.O Tim Cook – whose companies together represent about $5 trillion of market value – appeared via videoconference before the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel.

U.S. Representative David Cicilline, a Democrat and chair of the antitrust subcommittee, said the four companies were gigantic before the U.S. economy shut down in March because of the new coronavirus. “In the wake of COVID-19, however, they are likely to emerge stronger and more powerful than ever before,” he said.

“As hard as it is to believe, it is possible that our economy will emerge from this crisis even more concentrated and consolidated than before.”

Cicilline added: “They have too much power. While these dominant firms may still produce some new innovative products, their dominance is killing the small businesses, manufacturing, and overall dynamism that are the engines of the American economy.”

He was quickly followed by Representative Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the full committee, who accused the companies of taking a long list of actions that he said showed they try to hamper conservatives from reaching their supporters.

“Big Tech is out to get conservatives,” he said. The companies have denied allegations of political censorship.

Jordan and Cicilline had a heated exchange within 30 minutes of the hearing’s start, tangling over Jordan’s request to allow another member of Congress to join the panel.

Jordan’s allegations come after President Donald Trump, who has clashed with several of the biggest tech companies, on Wednesday threatened to take action against them.

“If Congress doesn’t bring fairness to Big Tech, which they should have done years ago, I will do it myself with Executive Orders,” Trump said on Twitter.

The president did not provide details but in the past has been irritated by tech companies, including Facebook and Twitter, which have occasionally taken action on his postings on issues such as treatments for the coronavirus. He has also clashed with the Washington Post, which is owned by Bezos.

Facebook and Apple’s CEOs have indicated they plan to use the specter of competition from China to push back against lawmakers seeking to rein them in.

Cicilline’s subcommittee has been looking in to allegations by critics that the companies have hurt competitors and consumers with their business practices and seemingly insatiable appetite for data.

The CEOs defended themselves by saying they themselves face competition and by pushing back against claims they are dominant.

In his opening remarks, Zuckerberg told lawmakers that China is building its “own version of the internet focused on very different ideas, and they are exporting their vision to other countries.”

Apple’s Cook pointed out that the fiercely competitive smartphone market includes China’s Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, which has been a focus of considerable U.S. national security concern.

Slideshow (4 Images)

The hearing marks the first time the four CEOs have appeared together before lawmakers, and will also be the first-ever appearance of Bezos before Congress.

A detailed report with antitrust allegations against the four tech platforms and recommendations on how to tame their market power could be released by late summer or early fall by the committee, which has separately amassed 1.3 million documents from the companies, senior committee aides said.

Reporting by Nandita Bose and Diane Bartz in Washington; Editing by Chris Sanders and Matthew Lewis

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