When Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg testified on Capitol Hill two years ago, the hearings were an embarrassing exercise in congressional cluelessness. They furthered a cliché: The doddering American political elite, who sometimes seemed to confuse Messenger with the passenger pigeon, would never have the savvy to keep up with the dynamism of Big Tech, let alone regulate it.
The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust thoroughly debunked that strand of conventional wisdom today. Hauling the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google to testify together as a unit, the subcommittee produced a hearing that was the antithesis of the Zuckerberg fiasco of 2018.
Congress gets kicked so often for doltish preening that it seems a great miracle when it actually does its job. David Cicilline, the Rhode Island Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, has conducted a master class in how to frame an issue and then press a case for action. Having hired the pathbreaking legal scholar Lina Khan to his staff, he spent a year subpoenaing documents from the companies, talking widely with their employees (and ex-employees), and interviewing legal experts.
By the time the subcommittee called the CEOs, it had amassed deep knowledge and uncovered a damning paper trail. With many of their questions, members seemed to know the inner workings of the companies better than their executives. Asking about anticompetitive practices, Cicilline reduced Google’s Sundar Pichai to mumbling incoherently about kettlebells; using specific examples, the subcommittee members Pramila Jayapal and Joe Neguse prodded Amazon’s Jeff Bezos into admitting instances of his company’s anticompetitive behavior.
Ever since the election of President Donald Trump, which revealed the rampant manipulation of social media, the backlash against Silicon Valley has often felt shapeless. Because these companies have tendrils extended into seemingly every aspect of American life, the complaints against them have sprawled. They have been criticized for an insensitivity to privacy, their role in the proliferation of misinformation, their cozy relationship with China, their creation of addictive products, their tax-avoidance schemes, and so on. With such a boundless litany of attacks, the companies have benefited from their critics’ failure to focus their arguments.
But where Zuckerberg suffered a barrage of disconnected complaints, these hearings got to the nub of the problem: The internet has allowed the creation of a new style of monopoly. Nobody escapes the pull of these dominant firms, which have the power to pick winners and losers, in both the economy and the realm of information. The long, familiar list of complaints about the tech giants was distilled to its most essential element—the danger that concentrated market power poses to competitive capitalism and democracy.
Like every other occasion in Trump’s Washington, the hearings featured instances of partisan sniping. But what made the proceeding so distinctive is the broad agreement they evinced. Hardly any member was willing to defend the companies with anything close to conviction. Even when Trump’s devoted defender Jim Jordan launched into conspiracy theories about how Google aims to strangle conservative opinion, he was mouthing a version of Cicilline’s argument. The companies, Jordan was saying, have become omnipotent gatekeepers with the power to invisibly shape the flow of information however they please.
Invoking a dusty name, several Democrats on the committee spoke reverently about the Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who led the anti-monopoly movement of the early 20th century. By conjuring his ghost, they were aligning themselves with an older, more pugilistic strand of antitrust than has been practiced in Washington the past few generations. They were signaling a broader revolt against the long-dominant Chicago school of political economy, under which the government’s worries about monopoly narrow to a standard called “consumer welfare.” In that paradigm, regulators and courts sought to punish only monopolies that raised prices, which meant that they rarely took any action at all. (And the standard seems antiquated in an era when many tech companies give their products to consumers for free.) But today’s hearings represented a return to Brandeisian worries about corporate behemoths, about how they use their size to hurt small businesses, how concentrated economic power can so easily distort the functioning of democracy.
Not so many years ago, the idea that Congress would ask such tough questions of the most revered figures in American capitalism was unimaginable. These hearings contained the intellectual framework and the practical case for a Democratic administration to break these companies into smaller pieces. Such dramatic action is not easy to imagine, given the ideological bent of the courts and the millions that the companies have spent on lobbying. Still, the work of Cicilline’s committee, its diligence and its passion, has rendered that radical possibility plausible.