Big Tech Hearing To Ask CEOs: Are Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google Too Big? The heads of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple will face lawmakers' questions about whether they are using their power to squash competition.

Big Tech In Washington's Hot Seat: What You Need To Know

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's being called Techpalooza (ph). Some of the world's most powerful CEOs - we're talking Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook of Apple and Sundar Pichai of Google - all of them will be testifying before Congress tomorrow. These companies are already under investigation by regulators in the U.S. and Europe. They are punching bags for politicians on the left and the right. NPR's Shannon Bond looks at how Big Tech has become a big target. And we should say here that Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook are all financial supporters of NPR.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: It's rare for titans of industry to line up together for a grilling under oath before Congress. In 1994, it was Big Tobacco.

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RON WYDEN: Let me ask you first - and I'd like to just go down the row - whether each of you believes that nicotine is not addictive.

BOND: During the financial crisis, it was the big three automakers. The CEOs of Ford, Chrysler and General Motors arrived by private jet.

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BRAD SHERMAN: I'm going to ask the three executives here to raise their hand if they flew here commercial. Let the record show no hands went up.

BOND: But tech companies, they haven't faced this kind of tough questioning since the U.S. government sued Microsoft for using its power to squash competition. That was back in the '90s. So what's with the spotlight on Big Tech now? Historian Margaret O'Mara says for years, it seemed like Silicon Valley could do no wrong.

MARGARET O'MARA: I think one of the reason that the critics fell so out of love with tech was because they were so deeply in love with it before.

BOND: These firms were warmly welcomed in Washington as paragons of American innovation. That allowed them to grow quickly and become indispensable. Nicol Turner Lee directs the Brookings Institution's Center for Technology Innovation.

NICOL TURNER LEE: Tech companies are now finding themselves sort of as the connector, changing the way that people across the world live, learn, earn, even love, right?

BOND: The pandemic has made it even more obvious how deeply technology is embedded in our lives. People are ordering more stuff from Amazon, using Google's video chat, streaming shows and movies on Apple TV. CEO Mark Zuckerberg says more than 3 billion people now use one of Facebook's apps every month.

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MARK ZUCKERBERG: We know that people especially rely on social apps in times of crisis and in times when we can't be together in person.

BOND: But that same technology intrudes on every part of our lives from our relationships to our elections. Critics worry these big companies are abusing their power. Here's how Kirsten Daru, an executive at a tech startup called Tile, explained it in another congressional hearing back in January.

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KIRSTEN DARU: You might be the best team in the league, but you're playing against a team that owns the field, the ball, the stadium and the entire league. And they can change the rules of the game in their own favor at any time.

BOND: That's the crux of the complaints. The tech giants use their size to bully rivals, whether it's the terms of Apple's app store, who shows up in Google search, how Amazon treats merchants who sell on its site or Facebook's habit of buying smaller competitors like Instagram and WhatsApp. The companies say they play fairly. Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline disagrees. He's leading this congressional investigation of tech. Here's what he told this program last summer.

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DAVID CICILLINE: The Internet is broken. We are living in a monopoly moment. Our constituents expect us to fix this and to get this marketplace working right.

BOND: On Wednesday Cicilline will take those complaints to the most powerful men in tech. Now, like everything in the time of the pandemic, this hearing is going to be kind of weird. The CEOs are appearing remotely by video. Historian O'Mara says that's a big change from the usual spectacle of executives, lawmakers and press in a wood-paneled hearing room.

O'MARA: They're not having to walk in in their suit and tie and, like, raise their hands. And there's not going to be that picture.

BOND: Instead, it will be the year's most high-powered videoconference.

Shannon Bond, NPR News.

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