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


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  • identicon
    David, 30 Jul 2020 @ 10:05am

    Unfortunately, for the CEOs it wasn't a waste of time

    It showed them quite clearly that with regard to recognition of anti-competitive behavior of social media and Internet technology, Congress would not be able to tell their ass from a hole in the ground.

    So you can expect a number of holes in the ground to get much-trumped coverage while the respective companies feel comparatively safe shitting on the respective laws and regulations intended to maintain competitiveness in the market.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 3 Aug 2020 @ 1:18am

      Re: Unfortunately, for the CEOs it wasn't a waste of time

      "So you can expect a number of holes in the ground to get much-trumped coverage while the respective companies feel comparatively safe shitting on the respective laws and regulations intended to maintain competitiveness in the market."

      You really think that's required at this point? AT&T and Comcast have demonstrated, quite decisively for some time now, that "laws and regulations" are empty words.

      The only thing shown here is a bunch of politicians unable to follow the logic that if someone steals your car you shouldn't blame the road builder for letting cars travel on it. And Those politicians, unable to even understand society, are the ones who make the calls about what laws to impose on society.

      Worse by far if anything the tech platforms called are perhaps the most visible but certainly also among the least harmful of US Big Tech (possibly Amazon aside). Yet they're the ones getting hauled in front of congress rather than, say, Vigilant Solutions, Anduril Industries, Oracle, Verison, Comcast and AT&T?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Koby (profile), 30 Jul 2020 @ 10:11am

    Sacrifice

    How was your Wednesday? I spent 5 and a half hours of mine watching the most inane and stupid hearing

    I appreciate you watching it and telling us about it. Although I wouldn't ever have the time to watch it, I'm sure that if I did try to find the time to watch stuff like this, then I would probably get queasy viewing it. Thanks for suffering so that we don't have to.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2020 @ 10:20am

    On the Flipside

    Top Antitrust Democrat: There's a Case To Break Up Facebook

    Go to Slashdot to get this story of Facebook Google and Amazon's Monopoly power.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mike Masnick (profile), 30 Jul 2020 @ 10:50am

      Re: On the Flipside

      What's the "flipside"?

      Top Antitrust Democrat: There's a Case To Break Up Facebook

      Yes, that was the funniest part: after 5.5 hours of no one actually making any case involving antitrust, Cicilline read a prepared statement at the end claiming that his conclusion was that the hearing proved to him that some of the companies needed to be broken up. The fact that he didn't explain how or why... kinda proved how much theater this was.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2020 @ 4:38pm

        Re: Re: On the Flipside

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2020 @ 4:42pm

          Re: Re: Re: On the Flipside

          Your take on the hearing seemed like you had been paid to debunk the claims of anti-trust monopolistic practices. Slashdot did make the stern point that Facebook buying out the competition would get these types of claims going everytime.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Mike Masnick (profile), 30 Jul 2020 @ 6:08pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: On the Flipside

            Your take on the hearing seemed like you had been paid to debunk the claims of anti-trust monopolistic practices. Slashdot did make the stern point that Facebook buying out the competition would get these types of claims going everytime.

            Ah, when you have nothing else to argue you jump to "shill." My opinions have never been for sale, and anyone who actually reads this site knows that. I've criticized all the companies at the hearing many times over, and think many of their practices are problematic. I wish the hearing involved actual questions exploring some of their practices. It did not.

            Re: FB buying competitors -- lots of companies buy competitors. The "smoking gun" against FB was that it bought Instagram, and that it could buy whatever competitors it wanted to take them out of the market. Except that Zuck tried to buy both Tiktok and Snap and failed in both -- and both present competitive challenges for him. So... Slashdot reported on a bogus talking point? Yeah. So fucking what?

            I think there are real concerns about FB's privacy practices, about Apple's app store practices, about Google's internal favoritism, and about Amazon's treatment of competitors. While those questions were occassionally touched on during the hearing, they were almost always done in misleading ways. And THAT DOES NOT HELP, because that allows the companies to highlight the inaccuracies, rather than deal with the actual issues.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 31 Jul 2020 @ 1:11am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: On the Flipside

            Funny how these claims by right wingers never seem to fall on the monopolistic telecom companies so beloved by the Trumpian FCC.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 30 Jul 2020 @ 10:29am

    'We're in US politics, why would we care about anti-trust?'

    Certainly sounds like the politicians involved decided that the real reason for the whole event was to whine like spoiled children that the platforms weren't doing what they wanted them to do, throw out garbage conspiracy theories and generally act like dishonest buffoons for the soundbites.

    Truly, an excellent use of political time and effort, not to mention the time and sanity of the poor sods they were 'questioning'.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2020 @ 10:43am

    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!"

    ... and yet, I saw an article just yesterday about Pramila Jayapal and Bill Barr, lauding her for "evicerating him" in exactly that fashion.

    I don't care much for the tactic. Were I treated that way by congress, I would stand up and say, "yes, this is your time to arrange as you will. But you summoned me to answer questions. Just as I may not waste your time, you may not waste mine. If you have no questions that you really want my answers to, good day."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Stephen T. Stone (profile), 30 Jul 2020 @ 10:54am

      I don't care much for the tactic.

      Which one — the tactic of a witness spouting enough bullshit to run out a questioner’s time (and avoid answering a simple yes-or-no question), or the tactic of the questioner shouting over said bullshit to reclaim their time?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2020 @ 11:12am

        Re:

        Have you stopped beating your wife? Yes or no only!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2020 @ 12:43pm

          Re: Re:

          Old jokes get all the laughs.
          Problem is, by definition, that is not a yes/no question.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2020 @ 4:31pm

            Re: Re: Re:

            Trick questions loaded with inferences posed by lawyers in a courtroom can get you hung answering just yes or no to questions like that..

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 3 Aug 2020 @ 1:33am

            Re: Re: Re:

            Problem is that the wifebeater argument is a rhetoric trick which forces the respondent into condemning himself no matter how he answers - the reason it's an old joke today is because it's a standard go-to whenever a politician has nothing to stand on other than demagoguery.

            The entire meeting by the house "judiciary" was based entirely around the precept that it would allow the representatives to send the message that they were outraged and concerned. And that's going to be the takeaway for the 99% or more of the citizenry who even bothered to notice it.

            Only the very very few, like poor Mike here, stays the torturous course of reviewing 5,5 hours worth of of man-children competing in appearing to be the most outraged and angry and can bring the utter childishness of the arguments to the table. I'd expect a 5 year old to repetitively holler an irrelevant question in bad faith so they could eventually get the toy they want, but for a grown man - let alone a room full of them - to do the same is just viscerally repugnant.

            US politics as it's finest - meaning, apparently, ancient roman senate arguments at their lowest.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2020 @ 11:02am

    Even if they did ask tech CEOs good questions on issues like competition and antitrust, your article about it would just look like this:

    "MySpace! Just MySpace! I can point to MySpace and that completely invalidates any argument that FaceBook, Amazon, Google et al. should be broken up! Some plucky startup working out of a garage is gonna come along any day now to challenge these multi-billion-dollar juggernauts, just you wait! And besides, even if you wanted to break up Big Tech, how would you do that? It's not like these companies have various branches that serve as easy lines of demarcation! Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp? Youtube, Google Search, Google Advertising? Amazon's store, Amazon Web Services, Amazon Prime Video? This is just so confusing! How would you ever break them up?!?

    Also, we should just support protocols over platforms to really break up Big Tech; make sure to read my article on it and credit me whenever you can!"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Stephen T. Stone (profile), 30 Jul 2020 @ 11:05am

      If you can write a better article, do it. If not, quit throwing a temper tantrum.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 3 Aug 2020 @ 1:59am

      Re:

      "Even if they did ask tech CEOs good questions on issues like competition and antitrust, your article about it would just look like this..."

      Given that Mike has been posing those "good questions" which should have been asked of tech CEO's for years here on Techdirt there are only two possible conclusions;

      1) You haven't read anything Mike wrote earlier but still feel compelled to criticize him out of ignorant frustration.
      2) You don't give a rat's ass WHAT Mike writes because you'll still present a strawman assumption you can beat him with.

      My money's on the second option, Baghdad Bob, because it's obvious you've read enough from Mike to understand his take on why encouraging open protocols is better than trying to shut down freedom of choice.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2020 @ 11:34am

    I suppose they're getting too many 'campaign contributions' to actually seriously quiz them about what theyre up to.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Mark Harrill (profile), 30 Jul 2020 @ 12:19pm

    I believe I can summarize this all up in two words: "OK Boomer"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2020 @ 12:38pm

    You are assuming the vast majority of the internet and its illegal, dangerous, and terrorist designated wireless architecture has been legalized instead of being dumped here by something calling itself "all of China", the thing convicted of witchcraft by european and asian courts for poisoning people called andorra, and various other things on UN and non-UN lists that China helped write.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    matt, 30 Jul 2020 @ 12:41pm

    Rep. Lucy McBath … 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

    Apple did fix a privacy issue, but they also released a competing product at the same time that they prevented other apps from working. That seems pretty anti competitive at a glance.

    Tim Cook did say they have a lot of apps now that track children's usage, but I wonder if the apps have access to the APIs that Apple uses for their apps.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Glenn, 30 Jul 2020 @ 12:48pm

    Congress... proving again that it is populated with idiots.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 30 Jul 2020 @ 1:23pm

    I stopped at 5 min.

    lets add a few things..
    HOW many USA corps, are willing to FIGHT a REAL capitalist battle?
    Amazon, newegg, Even Walmart has 3rd party sellers..Independent People/companies selling goods.
    The sites themselves ARE the advert and aggregator..

    then lets add, Banggood, and about 4 other DIRECT from China/every place else..Competitors.
    ARE our corps/companies willing to COMPETE?? Are the Manufactures wiling to compete.. Are the Material goods, in the USA willing to compete..
    Unless the USA POPS the bubble of inflation, back to the 1980's, WE CANT/WONT.

    Anyone notice the price of gas went DOWN 1/3, and the price of many wood product, went down 2/3? BECAUSE, they had to make sales. They had Tons sitting around and needed sales.
    Couldnt send the Over priced trees to China, and make other products to Over charge for. They needed profits FAST.

    With all the modernization of work in the USA, most of the jobs are going away. It dont take 100's of men to harvest trees. And Fuel processing is easy and cheap, and only done in 2-3 locations in the USA, and shipped. Walmart has 1 person incharge of Self checkout, 8 checkouts...not a 1 for 1.

    There are allot of other places we can create jobs, but it will still require CORPS to pay taxes..

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2020 @ 5:54pm

      Re: I stopped at 5 min.

      US corps that avoid taxes by setting up shop in other countries should not be able to make even a penny in America.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        ECA (profile), 31 Jul 2020 @ 2:05pm

        Re: Re: I stopped at 5 min.

        Thats the trick..
        If you dont know..
        After the USA created a TON of requirements against pollution and WHO needed to clean up their acts..
        MOST sent representatives to the other countries to build facilities, Under different names. All over the Asian area. You can see part of this under 'union carbide' disaster in India.
        Manufacturing Expanded 1000 times. And we setup persons in those nations to be the Heads of the companies. Japan was Buried in Manufacturing, but soon quit...The pollution was terrible., and they loved fishing off the coast.
        The Corps love it over there, LOWER Material costs, Lower wages, NO Unions(yet), no pollution laws, and for some reason, we think we can bring them back, AND not FIX things in the USA First?/

        well, we got rid of most of the pollution laws, the the unions are fighting to stay relevant, the Automation of mining and materials is the hard one, as its ALL PROFIT.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    John85851 (profile), 3 Aug 2020 @ 11:56am

    Ladies and gentlemen, your elected officials...

    So these are the people we've elected into office to represent us.
    I don't know what's worse: that these people don't know much about technology or they can't be bothered to consult with people who do know about technology.

    So, like the article said, the only purpose of this hearing was for the politicians to show their constituents that they're "doing something"!
    The other problem is that too many media sites will take this hearing to mean their site is right rather than holding the politicians accountable for their inaction.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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