The Big Tech Hearing Showed That Anti-Monopoly Is a Partisan Issue

A former wrestling coach who is not worried about concentrated corporate power. Photo: Mandel Ngan/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

For over a year, House lawmakers have been investigating the anti-competitive practices of America’s dominant tech firms. For much longer than that, chatter about an emerging “bipartisan anti-monopoly movement” has been growing in public discourse. Wednesday’s landmark hearing on Capitol Hill — which saw the CEOs of Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple answer for their companies’ alleged affronts to antitrust law — showed that concerns about Big Tech’s monopoly power are well-founded. But it also demonstrated that rumors of Republican interest in antitrust have been greatly exaggerated.

In broad terms, the anti-monopolist critique of Silicon Valley’s goliaths boils down to this: America’s major tech platforms are using their outsize market-share to entrench their own dominance and insulate themselves from the threat of competition. In doing so, these firms don’t merely inhibit innovation or gain pricing power over consumers and suppliers; they also undermine popular self-government by concentrating economic power in the hands of a narrow elite, which can then invest great sums into lobbying operations and campaign contributions, thereby insulating their power from democratic rebuke.

The four firms scrutinized by Congress Wednesday each (allegedly) leverage their market power to disadvantage competitors in distinct ways. Apple has exploited its dominance in smartphone production to give its own apps a competitive advantage over outside developers. In the U.S., about 42 percent of smartphone users own iPhones, which means that they shop for digital goods and services at Apple’s “App Store” — where the company’s in-house products enjoy a privileged place in search results, while other developers’ apps are often forced to pay Apple a 30 percent commission for the right to sell their wares over its platform.

Similarly, Google has allegedly leveraged its dominance of search traffic to direct users to its own products, while forcing other companies to buy ads if they wish to maintain a competitive place in the company’s search results. Amazon supremacy in online retail leaves third-party sellers with little choice but to use its platform — which then gives Jeff Bezos’s company the power to track its competitors’ sales, and use that proprietary data to develop its own alternative brands. Facebook’s primary antitrust issue is less subtle: It uses its outsize share of social media ad-dollars to buy off potential competitors in their infancy.

At Wednesday’s hearing, the House Judiciary Committee’s Democratic members challenged the CEOs on all these matters. Washington congresswoman Pramila Jayapal grilled Bezos on reports that Amazon uses third-party sellers’ data when creating its own branded products, in contravention of the company’s own official policy. New York’s Jerry Nadler — in perhaps the afternoon’s most newsworthy moment — confronted Mark Zuckerberg with an email he’d sent Facebook’s chief financial officer in February 2012, in which the Facebook CEO wrote of the social media companies Instagram and Path, “if they grow to a large scale the[y] could be very disruptive to us. These entrepreneurs don’t want to sell…but at a high enough price — like $500m or $1b — they’d have to consider it. Given that we think our own valuation is fairly aggressive and that we’re vulnerable in mobile, I’m curious if we should consider going after one or two of them.”

Months later, Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion. The plain implication of Zuckerberg’s emails is that this purchase was motivated by a desire to prevent a startup from beating Facebook at its own game: Whether Zuckerberg’s company could deliver consumers a better platform for photo-sharing than Instagram was unclear; but whether his firm had sufficient capital to nip this potential competitor in the bud was. So, Facebook erred on the side of suppressing disruptive innovation.

The committee’s Republican lawmakers asked a handful of questions along these lines — which is to say, inquiries about how tech incumbents may be using their power to thwart competition. But the bulk of their queries had little to do with monopoly power as such. Rather, the GOP committee members were chiefly concerned with safeguarding Donald Trump Jr.’s God-given right to share misinformation about hydroxychloroquine over social media, and scolding Google for inhibiting search users’ access to a far-right blog that routinely misidentifies perpetrators of mass violence and promoted conspiracy theories about the Parkland shooting. In the abstract, these complaints aren’t irrelevant to the monopoly issue, as they speak to a concern with the power that private platforms have secured to define the boundaries of acceptable speech. But, as the committee’s ranking Republican Jim Jordan stated explicitly in a memo to his colleagues in preparation for Wednesday’s hearing, most GOP lawmakers do not actually see the alleged censorship of conservative viewpoints on social media platforms as an antitrust issue:

[A]ntitrust law is ill-equipped for and may not be the best vehicle to address political bias. Speaking broadly, however, consistent political bias against Republicansin Silicon Valley would create a competitive void and opportunity for entrepreneurs to fill. To the extent such bias exists and is properly publicized—and as consumers and entrepreneurs are made aware of the extent of this “flaw”in existing companies’ offerings and services—free markets will provide remedies commensurate with the flaw. Existing companies can opt to take steps to reduce bias or perceptions of bias as they see fit. And new, disruptive competitors can also step up and provide alternative products and social media platforms.

In other words, the solution to Silicon Valley’s supposed anti-Republican bias is not to pass laws that reduce the power of private platforms to set the terms of acceptable debate; it is to “properly publicize” (i.e. demagog) that bias in front of TV cameras. Jordan’s co-partisans did little Wednesday to indicate disagreement with this analysis. The GOP’s complaint is not with Big Tech’s vast unaccountable power over our political economy, but only with how it is choosing to wield that power. It is nevertheless too averse to regulation to legislatively punish Silicon Valley for its supposed treachery. So, it’s settled for using Big Tech’s cosmopolitan, coastal elites as culture war foils, and their conspicuous power, as a prop with which to rehearse Red America’s narratives of media persecution.

Which is not to say that the party’s unease about Silicon Valley’s cultural liberalism is entirely insincere or misplaced. Allegations that Facebook is marginalizing conservative viewpoints are ludicrous, given rightwing media’s dominance of that platform. But it is the case that the men and women who staff the tech sectors’ megafirms — especially, below the C-suite level — typically hold values antithetical to the conservative movement’s. College-educated, coastal-dwelling Americans under 40 are an overwhelmingly progressive demographic group, especially on the issues of race, gender, and immigration that most animate the GOP base. And this group commands the bulk of the “human capital” it takes to run a major tech firm.

Matt Gaetz voiced conservative anxieties about Big Tech’s susceptibility to pressure from their woke workforces at Wednesday’s hearing. Back in 2018, Google was poised to launch a partnership with the Pentagon to develop drone technology, when dissent from its workers forced the firm to drop the project. “You made the decision to pull out of that joint venture following receipt of a letter from thousands of your employees saying that Google should not be in the business of war,” Gaetz reminded Google CEO Sundar Picahi. Gaetz then asked if Pichai planned to let his workers turn Google against the police, too.

“They’ve asked you to stop doing business with American law enforcement, saying that police — broadly — uphold white supremacy and that Google should not be engaged with any services with police,” Gaetz said, referencing a letter from 1,600 Google employees partnership with law enforcement agencies under civil and criminal investigation. “Will you take the pledge that Google will not adopt the bigoted anti-police policy that is requested in the most recent letter?”

Pichai replied, “We are committed to continuing to work with law enforcement in a way that’s consistent with law and due process in the U.S.”

Gaetz’s interrogation of Pichai was among the afternoon’s most instructive. The Florida conservative asked genuinely tough, worthwhile questions about Google’s work for the Chinese government. And this won him plaudits from some anti-monopoly progressives who are invested in the idea that there is significant bipartisan support for an antitrust revival. But Gaetz’s complaints weren’t actually about the scale of Google’s power. To the contrary, the congressman took the tech firm to task for failing to secure a larger share of military contracts. Google’s questionable partnerships with China, meanwhile, have no inherent relationship to issues of antitrust. It is possible for a company to be an anticompetitive tech monopoly and a loyal servant of the American national security state.

Gaetz had five minutes to interrogate Google’s CEO — at a hearing of the House’s antitrust subcommittee — and said virtually nothing about the company’s anti-competitive policies, opting instead to scold the firm for being anti-American, anti-police, and soft on China. This would be an odd thing for him to do, if one posits that the reason Republicans have been making populist noises about Big Tech in recent years is that they’ve developed a distaste for concentrated corporate power. If one presumes that Republicans have been making such noises out of cultural hostility towards an especially cosmopolitan segment of American capital, however, Gaetz’s focus makes perfect sense.

Big Tech Hearing Shows That Antitrust Is a Partisan Issue