House Judiciary Spends 5.5 Hours Making Themselves Look Foolish, Without Asking Many Actual Tough Questions Of Tech CEOs
from the what-did-I-just... dept
How was your Wednesday? I spent 5 and a half hours of mine watching the most inane and stupid hearing put on by Rep. David Cicilline, and the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial & Administrative Law. The hearing was billed as a big antitrust showdown, in which the CEOs of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon would all answer questions regarding an antitrust investigation into those four companies. If you are also a glutton for punishment, you can now watch the whole thing yourself too (though, at least you can watch it at 2x speed). I’ll save you a bit of time though: there was very little discussion of actual antitrust. There was plenty of airing of grievances, however, frequently with little to no basis in reality.
If you want to read my realtime reactions to the nonsense, there’s a fairly long Twitter thread. If you want a short summary, it’s this: everyone who spoke is angry about some aspect of these companies but (and this is kind of important) there is no consensus about why and the reasons for their anger is often contradictory. The most obvious example of this played out in regards to discussions that were raised about the decision earlier this week by YouTube and Facebook (and Twitter) to take down an incredibly ridiculous Breitbart video showing a group of “doctors” spewing dangerous nonsense regarding COVID-19 and how to treat it (and how not to treat it). The video went viral, and a whole bunch of people were sharing it, even though one of the main stars apparently believes in Alien DNA and Demon Sperm. Also, when Facebook took down the video, she suggested that God would punish Facebook by crashing its servers.
However, during the hearing, there were multiple Republican lawmakers who were furious at Facebook and YouTube for removing such content, and tried to extract promises that the platforms would no longer “interfere.” Amusingly (or, not really), at one point, Jim Sensenbrenner even demanded that Mark Zuckerberg answer why Donald Trump Jr.’s account had been suspended for sharing such a video — which is kind of embarrassing since it was Twitter, not Facebook, that temporarily suspended Junior’s account (and it was for spreading disinfo about COVID, which that video absolutely was). Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, Rep. Cicilline was positively livid that 20 million people still saw that video, and couldn’t believe that it took Facebook five full hours to decide to delete the video.
So, you had Republicans demanding these companies keep those videos up, and Democrats demanding they take the videos down faster. What exactly are these companies supposed to do?
Similarly, Rep. Jim Jordan made some conspiracy theory claims saying that Google tried to help Hillary Clinton win in 2016 (the fact that she did not might raise questions about how Jordan could then argue they have too much power, but…) and demanded that they promise not to “help Biden.” On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Jamie Raskin complained about how Facebook allowed Russians and others to swing the election to Trump, and demanded to know how Facebook would prevent that in the future.
So… basically both sides were saying that if their tools are used to influence elections, bad things might happen. It just depends on which side wins to see which side will want to do the punishing.
Nearly all of the Representatives spent most of their time grandstanding — rarely about issues related to antitrust — and frequently demonstrating their own technological incompetence. Rep. Greg Steube whined that his campaign emails were being filtered to spam, and argued that it was Gmail unfairly handicapping conservatives. His “evidence” for this was that it didn’t happen before he joined Congress last year, and that he’d never heard of it happening to Democrats (a few Democrats noted later that it does happen to them). Also, he said his own father found his campaign ads in spam, and so clearly it wasn’t because his father marked them as spam. Sundar Pichai had to explain to Rep. Steube that (1) they don’t spy on emails so they have no way of knowing that emails were between a father and son, and (2) that emails go to spam based on a variety of factors, including how other users rate them. In other words, Steube’s own campaign is (1) bad at email and (2) his constituents are probably trashing the emails. It’s not anti-conservative bias.
Rep. Ken Buck went on an unhinged rant, claiming that Google was in cahoots with communist China and against the US government.
On that front, Rep. Jim Jordan put on quite a show, repeatedly misrepresenting various content moderation decisions as “proof” of anti-conservative bias. Nearly every one of those examples he misrepresented. And then when a few other Reps. pointed out that he was resorting to fringe conspiracy theories he started shouting and had to be told repeatedly to stop interrupting (and to put on his mask). Later, at the end of the hearing, he went on a bizarre rant about “cancel culture” and demanded each of the four CEOs to state whether or not they thought cancel culture was good or bad. What that has to do with their companies, I do not know. What that has to do with antitrust, I have even less of an idea.
A general pattern, on both sides of the aisle was that a Representative would describe a news story or scenario regarding one of the platforms in a way that misrepresented what actually happened, and painted the companies in the worst possible light, and then would ask a “and have you stopped beating your wife?” type of question. Each of the four CEOs, when put on the spot like that, would say something along the lines of “I must respectfully disagree with the premise…” or “I don’t think that’s an accurate representation…” at which point (like clockwork) they were cut off by the Representative, with a stern look, and something along the lines of “so you won’t answer the question?!?” or “I don’t want to hear about that — I just want a yes or no!”
It was… ridiculous — in a totally bipartisan manner. Cicilline was just as bad as Jordan in completely misrepresenting things and pretending he’d “caught” these companies in some bad behavior that was not even remotely accurate. This is not to say the companies haven’t done questionable things, but neither Cicilline nor Jordan demonstrated any knowledge of what those things were, preferring to push out fringe conspiracy theories. Others pushing fringe wacko theories included Rep. Matt Gaetz on the Republican side (who was all over the map with just wrong things, including demanding that the platforms would support law enforcement) and Rep. Lucy McBath on the Democratic side, who seemed very, very confused about the nature of cookies on the internet. She also completely misrepresented a situation regarding how Apple handled a privacy situation, suggesting that protecting user’s privacy by blocking certain apps that had privacy issues was anti-competitive.
There were a few Representatives who weren’t totally crazy. On the Republican side, Rep. Kelly Armstrong asked some thoughtful questions about reverse warrants (not an antitrust issue, but an important 4th Amendment one) and about Amazon’s use of competitive data (but… he also used the debunked claim that Google tried to “defund” The Federalist, and used the story about bunches of DMCA notices going to Twitch to say that Twitch should be forced to pre-license all music, a la the EU Copyright Directive — which, of course, would harm competition, since only a few companies could actually afford to do that). On the Democratic side, Rep. Raskin rightly pointed out the hypocrisy of Republicans who support Citizens United, but were mad that companies might politically support candidates they don’t like (what that has to do with antitrust is beyond me, but it was a worthwhile point). Rep. Joe Neguse asked some good questions that were actually about competition, but for which there weren’t very clear answers.
All in all, some will say it was just another typical Congressional hearing in which Congress displays its technological ignorance. And that may be true. But it is disappointing. What could have been a useful and productive discussion with these four important CEOs was anything but. What could have been an actual exploration of questions around market power and consumer welfare… was not. It was all just a big performance. And that’s disappointing on multiple levels. It was a waste of time, and will be used to reinforce various narratives.
But, from this end, the only narrative it reinforced was that Congress is woefully ignorant about technology and how these companies operate. And they showed few signs of actually being curious in understanding the truth.
Filed Under: antitrust, bias, big tech, david cicilline, greg steube, house judiciary, jamie raskin, jeff bezos, jim jordan, jim sensenbrenner, joe neguse, kelly armstrong, ken buck, lucy mcbath, mark zuckerberg, matt gaetz, politics, sundar pichai, techlash, tim coo
Companies: amazon, apple, facebook, google