Google’s Sundar Pichai was the sleekest of the lot in both appearance and setting. He wore an elegant charcoal suit and matching tie and was well-framed behind a desk that sat in an office that looked like it had been inspired by the West Elm catalogue. He sat with perfect posture, and when he spoke, his gestures were emotive but not frantic. He tended to steeple his fingers as he attempted to answer the House Judiciary subcommittee members’ meandering questions that teetered between privacy issues and conspiracy theories.
Amazon’s Bezos sat in front of a wall of honey-colored shelves with a distinctly mid-century modern feel; Tim Cook of Apple was backed by a low row of green house plants; and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg had a plain white background that glowed so brightly it looked as though he were delivering his testimony from the interior of a nuclear reactor.
As much as they all thanked the subcommittee members for the opportunity to appear virtually, and complimented them on their fantastic questions that they couldn’t wait to answer, eating up a little time so that they wouldn’t have to respond to too many questions, no one appeared delighted to be there. And why should they be? The politicians are so obsessed with their limited amount of time that they ask a question and then trample over the answers in their hurry to get to the next one. They want one-word answers to questions that are akin to soliloquies.
In general, the Democrats are displeased with how large these tech companies have become and how they dominate their market. Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) questioned Pichai about Google’s respect for privacy. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) hammered Bezos about whether Amazon swipes data from the small companies that sell their wares on the site, and Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.) peppered him with questions about the great diaper wars in which Amazon crushed Diapers.com.
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) was so distressed about Apple and its apps and the App Store that his five minutes may best be paraphrased for clarity: Apps from the App Store are not fair to app developers. How do the apps in the App Store work? Who makes the app rules? What’s an app? Who controls the apps in the App Store that Apple built? App! App! App!
But, mostly, the Democrats focused on big questions about the power these companies have amassed, even if they really weren’t all that interested in hearing the executives’ answers. The Republicans were far more concerned about Google and how it’s unfair to conservatives. Google suppresses conservative voices. Google sends Republicans’ fundraising emails to spam. Google is anti-American.
In his opening statement, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) felt the need to note, “Conservatives are consumers, too.” Poor, poor conservatives. Sensenbrenner, a man who flattens vowels like he’s wielding a hammer, wanted to know why Donald Trump Jr. was silenced when he touted hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for covid-19. (The Food and Drug Administration has advised against the use of the drug.) Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), noting that Google dropped out of the contest for a Defense Department computing contract because it didn’t align with company values, suggested that Google’s values were anti-American.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who once wore a gas mask on the House floor to mock the novel coronavirus and then later had to quarantine after being exposed to it, accused Google of being supportive of the Chinese military. He quoted the right-wing website the Daily Caller. Gaetz asked the entire panel whether any of them represented companies that do not embrace American values. None of the CEOs self-identified as anti-American. But the Republicans remained unconvinced.
No one was more unconvinced than Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). Is the jacketless Jordan a member of every single committee of the House of Representatives? He always seems to be up there on the dais yelling into the microphone, with his reading glasses perched on his nose.
Wednesday afternoon, he was yelling about whether Google’s Pichai would promise that the search engine would not do anything to support Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. Pichai looked perplexed. Jordan wanted him to affirm that Google wouldn’t help former vice president Biden. Pichai tried to explain that the search engine is nonpartisan. Jordan badgered. Finally, Pichai said Google wouldn’t support either candidate. Jordan didn’t seem particularly satisfied, but his time was up, and the baton was handed to Scanlon, who announced that she’d be getting back to questions about antitrust issues and leave the conspiracy theories behind.
And then Jordan had a fit because conservatives have feelings, too. So he started yelling again. And he was told to put on his mask. And, well, oh, boy, it was as childish as it all sounds, and one couldn’t help but wonder whether some of our representatives are drinking the hand sanitizer instead of using it for good hygiene.
The hearing was billed as an investigation into online competition. And much of the evidence laid out before Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, speaks to ruthless business practices. Zuckerberg still doesn’t quite grasp the impact of Facebook on civic life. And most of those on the subcommittee weren’t really up to the task of questioning Cook on Apple’s business practices. Still, the voices of small-business owners whose livelihoods had been upended by Amazon were at least piped into the room.
Too many of the Republicans were focused on playing put upon and abused. They seemed more interested in Trump Jr.’s Twitter habit and throwing out accusations of anti-Americanism at the only executive of color testifying. Stifled competition and bullied employees were side notes. The event was virtual, but the disgrace was real. The titans were diminished, but far too many of the subcommittee members were the ones who looked small.