Congress looks to prove it can keep Big Tech in check

The questions at Wednesday’s Capitol Hill hearing of four of the most powerful tech CEOs will be focused on the moguls. But lawmakers also have plenty to prove.

Congress has at times stumbled when facing off against the massive power of Silicon Valley’s online giants, with some officials even seeming befuddled by the complexities of how they operate — from one senator asking Mark Zuckerberg how Facebook makes money to Google’s Sundar Pichai having to explain to House members that the company doesn’t make iPhones.

This hearing is their chance to show that era is over — that Capitol Hill is ready to pin the tech moguls for answers and that the industry can’t charm or outsmart its way out of a serious investigation. Some of the world’s most powerful companies stand accused of unfairly stifling smaller rivals and lawmakers say they are determined to hold them to account.

[Read: Tech CEOs' opening statements for Wednesday's antitrust hearing]

Hitting that goal will require legislators to prove they've learned how to dissect each behemoth’s vast but distinct business empires, and lawmakers say they’re hoping to do so while avoiding the partisan squabbles that have muddied other hearings with top tech executives. That’s all while overcoming new challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has pushed the blockbuster session into the CEOs’ home turf: online.

Members of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee will grill Facebook’s Zuckerberg, Google’s Pichai, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Apple’s Tim Cook in a largely virtual hearing, with all four CEOs and even some lawmakers set to appear through videoconferencing. It’s a format that could make it even harder to squeeze the tech moguls for answers.

Still, it’s an unmatched opportunity for the House. It’s the first time the four CEOs will testify jointly before Congress, and the first-ever testimony by Bezos, the world’s richest person. And the session comes as regulators around the globe are ratcheting up investigations into the companies’ treatment of competitors.

Those close to hearing say Wednesday’s session could unearth crucial new information about each companies’ business practices and go a long way toward holding the companies accountable for their business practices — if lawmakers don’t lose sight of the goal, that is.

“If the committee members are sharp and hold these CEOs to account, then I do think for the American public it illustrates what it looks like when members of Congress are actually willing to govern," said Stacy Mitchell, co-director for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a group advocates against market consolidation.