The Tech Companies Already Won

Antitrust could break up the big players. It wouldn’t change everyday life.

Reuters / The Atlantic

Like many professional families, mine is spending most of our time at home. I watch our younger daughter while my wife works, then we swap. I cheat, though, letting my daughter watch Amazon Prime Video on her iPad while I Slack on mine. Everywhere in the house, the pandemic takes things away and technology offers recompense. My son, a recent college graduate, works upstairs, doing digital marketing on Facebook. My older daughter attends college on Zoom, from her bedroom. We just replaced her pink childhood bed with a queen. Amazon delivered the mattress, which it also manufactured.

The fusion of technology’s rule and the pandemic’s chaos felt particularly poignant yesterday, as the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust grilled Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Google’s Sundar Pichai. The proceedings started an hour late, and the four CEOs all appeared virtually. As I waited for the hearing to start, the feed of the nearly empty room in the Rayburn House Office Building seemed hauntingly apt: Lawmakers mingled, masked amid their nation’s pandemic failure, awaiting remote testimony from its industrial lords, who were unmoved by the material world. Photographers knelt awkwardly before the testimony table, pointing their lenses at the empty witness chair, perhaps taking symbolic, meme-worthy photos of its void.

The congressional inquiry wasn’t focused on the pandemic, but rather on alleged abuses of monopoly power: Google’s dominance in the digital-ad market, Apple’s control of software in its App Store, Amazon’s treatment of third-party sellers, and Facebook’s aggressive pursuit of large competitors. The CEOs mostly danced around or denied these accusations.

Their influence cannot be denied. The technological underpinnings of ordinary life during the pandemic are impossible to avoid, in part because this crisis has made the tech industry only more ubiquitous. By the time the antitrust testimony finally started, I was able to relocate from the kitchen iPad to the office computer, but my younger daughter had begun her piano lesson outside the door (via Zoom, of course, on another iPad we bought from Tim Cook). I joined a last-minute video meeting at my university too, while watching the antitrust hearing, while comparing notes about it in Slack with my Atlantic colleagues. It feels quaint to call this “multitasking,” an outmoded walk-and-chew-gum euphemism for the desperate, computerized constancy of daily life. The pandemic is inescapable, but so is technology.

Antitrust law is supposed to ensure market competition, and the technology sector is a worthy target for its intervention—it pervades every crevice of ordinary life. All business is tech business. Banking is computers doing finance. Automobiles are computers spinning drivetrains. Retailers are warehouse pick-and-pack computers connected to freight-logistics routing computers. In his opening statement at the hearing, Representative Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin emphasized the need to conduct oversight of Big Tech, but he also praised the tech companies whose CEOs he was addressing. In particular, Sensenbrenner cited grocery delivery among the “myriad of our daily needs” that the companies now provide. The coronavirus pandemic has finally made that market broadly appealing. But that doesn’t put grocery in the tech sector, even if Amazon owns Whole Foods. It just makes technology a ghost that haunts all business, including food shopping.

Tech rules in smaller, less noticed ways too. In my video meeting, someone noted that the university assumes that professors teaching online will provide their own cameras, mics, and broadband. This everywhereness of technology pervaded the hearing. A tech CEO testifying from home is no different from what many professionals have been doing for months, but there’s something unnerving about seeing these titans of industry presented inside the technologies their industry commands. Seen on screens within the screen, the CEOs seemed impervious to lawmaker interrogation.

At one point, the antitrust subcommittee’s chair, Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island, called a 10-minute recess to fix a technical issue with one of the participants. It might have been Bezos, who hadn’t said a word since his opening statement, a five-minute long paean to himself. Radio and television and print work, at scale, almost all of the time. But even despite its wealth and power, technology still fails remarkably often. Amazon Web Services provides almost half of the cloud computing that other technology companies build their businesses upon; outages, though rare, can effectively bring down the whole of the internet for most users.

When Bezos finally spoke again, he fielded questions from Representatives Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania about Amazon’s misuse of data from sellers and its predatory pricing on diapers. A blurry handful of books on a credenza behind the richest man in the world seemed to bear the distinctive orange spine of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book about how European and North American civilizations conquered the globe.

With the pandemic raging outside, we have few places to safely go, because the  government botched its response to the contagion. But Facebook and other technology platforms have probably made some aspects of the crisis worse. Inside my home, there’s little I can’t do, thanks to the profusion of technology all around me. I can write articles to be promoted on Facebook or books to be sold on Amazon. I can make apps and games for Apple or Google devices. I can start a business, “the next Apple or Amazon,” perhaps, a future beneficiary of this antitrust inquiry, according to Jayapal.

But instead I’m just scrambling to get through today and every day, hoping for a reprieve. I zeroed the volume on the hearing and unmuted my mic to weigh in on the work video call: “I think if we’re going to do more things, we need to eliminate some of the other things to make room for them,” I mustered. Antitrust is supposed to do the same thing, except for business: encourage competition by breaking up or regulating companies that grow too large—a demand Representative Cicilline issued. But just as the pandemic’s public-health disruption feels endless and out of control, the technology sector’s disruptive innovation seems too entrenched to upend easily. In both cases, nothing appears to change, only to persist, even as spectacles like this one demand intervention. Through the speakers of my computer, Representative Ken Buck of Colorado intoned, “Capitalism is the greatest instrument for freedom this world has ever seen.”