Later this month, the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google will appear before the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee as part of its investigation into the companies and their dominion over the tech industry. On the latest episode of the Pivot podcast, Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway discuss why the group setting puts lawmakers at a disadvantage, and will likely allow Mark Zuckerburg & Co. to escape serious scrutiny.
Kara Swisher: This is shaping up to be an all-day event with testimony from Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, Jeff Bezos, and Tim Cook. Because of the pandemic, it’s still unclear whether they’ll be there live. The executives have all agreed to appear voluntarily, which is controversial. A lot of people think this is not a good idea because they’ll be able to escape scrutiny together, and a lot of people think they should have been subpoenaed so they could be kept there for days and days. So, Scott, what do you think of this?
Scott Galloway: I think we’re already being played. Or I think Congress has already been played. By bringing all four of them, you create this amorphous impression of all of big tech. The reality is it’s kind of the mother of all reduction. Apple is an entirely different company than Facebook. It requires regulation of the app store, or maybe even spinning the chip unit, which no one ever talks about. Facebook should just be broken up and/or face much more severe penalties or even civil or criminal charges. The biggest benefit here, because they are all coming together, is that none of them are really going to be singled out and Congress is not going to get the opportunity to go really deep.
The problems and the remedies for Amazon are just much different than any of the other companies. The real winner is Mark Zuckerberg, because if it was just him solo for two days, it would get really ugly, really fast. There’s going to be safety in numbers. So for them to all show up together, there’s going to be a general assumption and general conclusions around big tech.
Swisher: And they don’t necessarily have to appear in person. I think Jeff Bezos is not going to show up. I think he’s very germ-aware.
Galloway: Is that right? I didn’t know that. I thought he was going.
Swisher: It’s not clear. I just know he hasn’t been seen, if you’ve noticed. Zuckerberg has been a little more seen, but I think they all have an excuse to not come. And I think it’s a good excuse, by the way, not to physically come, even if they tried to do social distancing.
Galloway: Can’t they Zoom in?
Swisher: They can. A lot of people thought Congress should have done one company per day because there are different concerns with each of them. The CEOs probably said, “We’re only going to do it if we do it together.” That makes sense. But it’s interesting, because my feeling is people will attack Zuckerberg, Sundar and Tim will sit in the middle, and they’ll just sort of lick Jeff Bezos up and down.
Galloway: I think that’s right. I think that’s a perfect description.
Swisher: Yeah. So all of them together is not a great thing. At the same time, they’ve never appeared together, so it does put focus on this topic. So maybe that’s really the point here.
Galloway: Yeah. We’ll see. I think we’re going to get played. I think Bezos is going to be —
Galloway: Yeah, I think it’s going to be like Howard Hughes when he testified, where everyone was worried about it and he ended up making the Senate panel he testified in front of look ridiculous, and he came off looking great. I think Bezos is kind of the Howard Hughes of our generation, minus the neurosis. I think he’s just an incredible visionary. Anyway, I think they’ve already won. I hate to say this. They’re going to be really well-prepared. Tim Cook is just going to be exceptionally likable. Bezos will be exceptionally visionary. People will go after Zuckerberg, but they’re going to run out of time going after him. And then Sundar, I think he’ll just stay the hell out of it. I think he’ll just try and stay away.
Swisher: He’ll smile. Smile and wave kind of thing.
Galloway: We’ll see. Have you heard anything from these companies in terms of what they’re preparing for?
Swisher: No, I just think safety in numbers. And they can just put Mark in front of everybody, shove Mark in the front. I think it depends on the questioners too. You never know. You can get a real back-and-forth.
Galloway: Yeah, you can get a moment.
Swisher: In person has that drama of the room, and all the photographers, click, click, clicking down at their feet. And we’re not going to have that, obviously. Then there’s going to be cross talk, and that’s harder to control if you’re the head of the committee. But I’ve seen some really testy Zooms. If someone comes in and really pushes them, the question is, does it last?
Because, look, people like AOC and Porter have done a great job. First there was the first Mark Zuckerberg hearings, which were terrible and Mark came out great. And then there were the second ones where Mark got taken to task by AOC and Katie Porter, if you recall. It’s just, what’s the result? People aren’t really paying attention. That’s one of the issues. And I like [Antitrust Subcommittee Chair] David Cicilline. He’s been quite strong about their power. It’s just the question of whether you can get the American public to pay attention to it, given President Racist over here and the coronavirus over there. So that’s the issue: Are people going to get angry about this? They should be.
Galloway: The thing I think that would add the most value to these is if we could have some sort of citizen representative to ask questions not of the panelists, but of the people that sit on these committees.
“Okay, you’ve done 14 of these committees. You’ve spent this much money on it. But only 4 percent of you have a background in technology or engineering. Do any of you have the qualifications to be asking these questions? You talk a big game, but you’ve made absolutely no progress around any legislation around any of this. Why is it you are so ineffective?”
There should be a series of questions to the people who are grandstanding and creating all this movement without any progress, i.e. our elected representatives. They pose for the cameras and want to be seen as tough, and then they go shake Jeff Bezos’s hand and then do absolutely nothing. I’m at the point where I want to start questioning these guys and saying, “Just simply put, how can you be so upset about this yet so ineffective?”
Swisher: What can they do? I think a lot of the whole Trump thing has shown how little impact Congress really has. They just went on a two week [break] without doing anything about coronavirus, around people’s jobs, around rent, around anything. They couldn’t agree. And so into the void it goes. And I think that’s the issue. What do they have except for calling people together? And there is certain PR-ness to these testimonies.
Galloway: You’re right, there can be a moment. There can be a moment where someone asks a question they’re not prepared for, and you’ve had actually a couple of those moments with people. But at the end of the day, the only thing that passes for bipartisan legislation is legislation that flattens the curve for rich people. The only time that we can get our elected representatives to come together is when they agree to explode the deficit, to flatten the curve for rich people, and spread Vaseline over it with some sort of narrative around how it’s going to help Americans and demonstrate leadership.
Other than that, they’ve become entirely ineffective. The institutions have been defunded. You’re right, I think one of the most interesting things that will be written about historically as it relates to our union is the fact that Trump, more than anything, has demonstrated that our elected representatives have way more power than our institutions do. That our institutions are primarily feckless and can be overrun by elected representatives as long as they’re brazen.
Swisher: Yeah, brazenness and lack of shame, just like the new White House strategy is, “We’re going to teach people to be numb to the deaths and to live with it.” That’s their strategy. Which might work. I don’t think it will work, actually. I think people are very angry about this.
Galloway: Four percent of the world’s population, 26 percent of the infections, and 25 percent of the deaths.
Galloway: American exceptionalism. We had more time to prepare for it and we spend more money on health care. The numbers are getting — what Stalin said, “One death is a tragedy, millions are a statistic.” We are now into statistic mode, where we can’t even absorb the amount of death, disease, and disability that has been levied on this country by (a) a lack of citizenship by us, and (b) extraordinary incompetence and negligence at the federal level.
Swisher: I think these things are related — this idea of people not caring. They like their phones. They like their maps. They like their dating apps. They’re willing to put up with this behavior. I keep writing the same freaking column over and over again, saying, “These companies have enormous power and they’ve gotten people used to it.” And I think if the companies have a friendly face — like Bezos is charming and interesting. The same thing with Elon Musk, same thing with all of them.
Galloway: Likability, it’s important.
Swisher: Likability. The only one that you don’t like is Zuckerberg, and you do see whenever I write a Facebook thing, the enormous amount of dislike toward this particular CEO. And I don’t know why, because he’s actually a very nice guy. It’s a really interesting thing. There’s something about him people don’t like.
Galloway: I’m sure Mussolini’s friends found him fucking charming.
Swisher: No, no, no, he was not charming. You know what I mean. He’s the only one that seems to attract ire, general ire. “I don’t like that guy. There’s something wrong with that guy.” Which I think is —
Galloway: Common sense. I would argue that’s common sense.
Pivot is produced by Rebecca Sananes. Erica Anderson is the executive producer.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.