Big Tech CEOs Defend Companies In Capitol Hill Testimony : Consider This from NPR The CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google faced questions today from a House subcommittee. Some lawmakers believe those companies have too much economic and political power. Former Facebook policy executive Dipayan Ghosh agrees.

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In The Pandemic, Big Tech Is Bigger Than Ever. Should Consumers Be Worried?

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In The Pandemic, Big Tech Is Bigger Than Ever. Should Consumers Be Worried?

In The Pandemic, Big Tech Is Bigger Than Ever. Should Consumers Be Worried?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/896629560/896927207" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google - when the CEOs of four companies that big are all told to come and testify in front of Congress, it's usually not because Washington is super happy with them.

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DAVID CICILLINE: Do you swear or affirm under penalty of perjury that the testimony you are about to give is true and correct to the best of your knowledge, information and belief, so help you God?

MCEVERS: Today, of course, they weren't actually in the same room.

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JEFF BEZOS: Yes.

SUNDAR PICHAI: Yes, I do.

MARK ZUCKERBERG: Yes.

TIM COOK: I do.

CICILLINE: Let the record show the witnesses answered in the affirmative. Thank you, and you may remain seated.

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MCEVERS: These four CEOs were testifying remotely, all at once, to a congressional subcommittee. Lawmakers on that subcommittee, both Democrats and Republicans, have been investigating whether these companies are too big. Congressman David Cicilline says yes, they are - so big, in fact, they operate almost like a separate country.

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CICILLINE: Their ability to dictate terms, call the shots, upend entire sectors and inspire fear represent the powers of a private government. Our founders would not bow before a king, nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy.

MCEVERS: Coming up, we all use their stuff all the time. So what if tech companies are too big? This is CONSIDER THIS from NPR. I'm Kelly McEvers. It is Wednesday, July 29.

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MCEVERS: So yeah, we have seen this before - leaders of big business hauled in front of Congress to testify because lawmakers think they're being irresponsible.

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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.

MCEVERS: In 1994, Congress lined up big tobacco CEOs.

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WYDEN: Do you believe nicotine is not addictive?

WILLIAM CAMPBELL: I believe nicotine is not addictive, yes.

MCEVERS: During the financial crisis, it was the big three automakers.

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BRAD SHERMAN: I'm going to ask the three executives here to raise their hand if they flew here commercial.

MCEVERS: The CEOs of Ford, Chrysler and General Motors all came on private jets.

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SHERMAN: Let the record show no hands went up.

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MCEVERS: But this time is way different. These tech companies are making stuff that billions - billions - of people use every day. NPR's Shannon Bond reports on how people used to think that was a good thing - now, not so much.

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SHANNON BOND: 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 indispensible. 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.

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ZUCKERBERG: I'm proud of how we've supported people around the world during this time.

BOND: CEO Mark Zuckerberg says more than 3 billion people now use one of Facebook's apps every month.

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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. Right now, we are experiencing both of those.

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: It's like playing a soccer game. 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.

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CICILLINE: You know, when you have tremendous concentrations of economic power, it's often followed by tremendous concentrations of political power.

BOND: He's leading this congressional investigation of tech.

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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.

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MCEVERS: Congressman David Cicilline in that story from NPR's Shannon Bond. Of course, today on Capitol Hill, the tech CEOs each came prepared to point out ways in which they are not the biggest, the baddest or the only game in town. Here's Amazon's Jeff Bezos.

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BEZOS: We compete against large, established players like Target, Costco, Kroger, and, of course, Walmart, a company more than twice Amazon's size.

MCEVERS: Sundar Pichai of Google.

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PICHAI: Google's continued success is not guaranteed. New competitors emerge every day. And today, users have more access to information than ever before.

MCEVERS: We should say 90% of Internet searches happen on Google. And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said there are a lot of areas where his company is not the first choice for consumers.

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ZUCKERBERG: The most popular messaging service in the U.S. is iMessage. The fastest growing app is TikTok. The most popular app for video is YouTube. The fastest growing ads platform is Amazon. The largest ads platform is Google.

MCEVERS: They only service he mentioned there that's not owned by one of the three other companies whose CEOs testified today is TikTok.

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DIPAYAN GHOSH: Zuck could have just as easily said, well, look at all these other industries outside of the Internet that feature monopoly power.

MCEVERS: Dipayan Ghosh is co-director of the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He used to be a policy executive at Facebook.

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GHOSH: The fact is that Facebook's monopoly power is in social media. When we try to connect with friends, there is only one platform that we think about.

MCEVERS: If you're thinking about Instagram right now, remember; Facebook owns that, too. Ghosh told NPR today, yeah, tech companies do have competition, but they're still globally dominant in a way that's never been seen before. He talked to my colleague Ailsa Chang.

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AILSA CHANG: Why should the average American who's maybe perfectly happy scrolling through Facebook or buying stuff from Amazon - why should she be concerned on a day-to-day level about the amount of power that these companies have?

GHOSH: Well, you know, I think even if we enjoy Facebook, even if we use Google Search, we enjoy Amazon Fresh to get our groceries during the pandemic, what we might not recognize at an individual level is that when these companies have this monopoly power over huge swaths of the digital ecosystem today, that really can have poor implications for labor markets, for the distribution of wealth and economic power, for all their other kinds of consumer harms, which we don't necessarily feel at an individual level all the time. And yet they're drawing wealth away from the rest of society and collecting it within their own coffers.

CHANG: Well, how big is too big? How much power is too much power? Like, how do you even measure that?

GHOSH: Well, I don't think that it's wrong to have a monopoly. And some of the members in the committee have highlighted that. It's not necessarily wrong to have a monopoly over a market. What is wrong is if you got that monopoly through harmful means, by harming your would-be rivals, or if you maintain that monopoly using harmful means. And I think the committee's point is that in each of these four cases of these four companies, that circumstance has come to be.

CHANG: So what are some policy fixes that you think Congress should be considering right now?

GHOSH: Ailsa, the business model of these companies involves collecting data on an uninhibited basis, using it to develop algorithms that are highly sophisticated and yet tremendously opaque to the public, and growing their platforms with a level of aggressiveness that diminishes any potential threat from would-be rivals. And so I think we need a three-way regulatory solution with privacy for that uninhibited collection of data and transparency over those algorithms and better market competition, better antitrust regulation and enforcement. If the committee can bring us further in the conversation in those three areas, I think it will have done what's right for the American people. And hopefully this is a longer conversation that will continue through November.

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MCEVERS: Dipayan Ghosh from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government talking to my colleague Ailsa Chang. Additional reporting in this episode from our colleagues at All Things Considered and from NPR's Shannon Bond. And we should say that Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook are among NPR's financial supporters.

For more news, download the NPR One app or listen to your local public radio station. Supporting that station makes this podcast possible. I'm Kelly McEvers. We're back with more tomorrow.

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