Planning for the big event exposed the challenges of conducting congressional oversight in the coronavirus era.
The tech executives were expected to testify via Cisco’s Webex video conferencing software, which House committees have used to enable more than 80 hearings during the pandemic, according to data provided by the House Administration Committee. Virtual hearings are increasingly a reality of the pandemic, and everyone from Anthony S. Fauci to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has testified via video in recent months — once an unthinkable protocol in the analog world of Congress.
Tech observers said the hearing plans were awkward. And not only because they would force some of the makers of the most well-known video streaming services in the world to use a competitor's product.
Tech experts fret it will be much more difficult for lawmakers to pin down the chief executives virtually.
Scott Galloway, the author of “The Four” and a professor at the New York University Stern School of Business, criticized lawmakers for holding a hearing when the chief executives could opt to testify virtually. He said lawmakers should wait to hold the hearing until executives can be there in person.
“There's just going to be a total lack of sentiment,” he said. Videoconferencing calls “don't make for great TV viewing.”
Even lawmakers hosting the hearing were concerned they could be as effective in the virtual format.
“I think it's less productive than if the CEOs were in person,” Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) said in an interview with my colleague Tony Romm. “I really do get the concerns from friends on the left with the pandemic … but this is such a huge opportunity to gather information.”
Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon declined to comment on the plans. Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.
Often the most talked about moments during tech hearings happen outside of testimony.
A protester dressed as Monopoly Man stole the show during Google chief executive Sundar Pichai's Capitol Hill testimony in 2018. A hearing that same year with Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey devolved into a circuslike atmosphere as conservative conspiracy theorists lurked behind them in the halls of Congress. And who could forget how Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg sipped water during his first Capitol Hill testimony?
If the chief executives testified via computer screens from the West Coast, all of that will be absent. There will be no photo opp of Pichai, Bezos, Zuckerberg and Tim Cook being sworn-in shoulder to shoulder.
“There is something about getting an executive to fly out from California to D.C. and grill them for a period of time,” said Dipayan Ghosh, a fellow and co-director of the Platform Accountability Project at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. “It's not only the time during the hearing that creates some impact, it's this process.”
Virtual testimony could give the chief executives an advantage.
Tech chief executives are no strangers to videoconferencing, and that format could be much more comfortable for them than sitting under the hot lights in Washington.
“There's something about inside of a hearing room where people are watching the witnesses' every move,” said Nu Wexler, a communications consultant who previously worked for Google and Facebook. “Is he sweating? Did his eyes dart around? Body language tends to get overanalyzed, and it will just be harder to do that on a video conference.”
Wexler said it was actually a good thing for the companies that lawmakers planned to use Webex, which is not owned by any of the firms being represented, as Washington examines the size and power of tech companies.
“For the purposes of this hearing, it's actually helpful because it shows Congress has choices,” he said.
Cisco is expanding its offerings for Congress as the pandemic continues.
World governments are increasingly using Webex as the pandemic sidelines in-person gatherings, Cisco says. The company is coming out with a new module later this year that will be customized for legislators, Jean Rosauer, Cisco's head of government sector, tells me.
She said lawmakers can “definitely” be as effective in questioning via videoconferencing, pointing to previous Hill hearings with Fauci and Mnuchin.
“By now Congress is very familiar with using the technology this way,” she said.
Lawmakers require software platforms to be authorized by its chief administrative officer, who has certified Webex meets the technical requirements for Congress to use it, said Peter Whippy, a spokesman for the Administration panel.
“The CAO continues to evaluate other products and platforms for use in formal committee proceedings,” he said.
Our top tabs
Developers say Apple's proposed fix for a major antitrust concern gives the company a tighter grip on consumers.
When Apple announced last year that it would allow external apps to use its “Find My” feature to locate non-Apple devices, it was seen as an olive branch to developers.
But a 50-page PDF obtained by The Post detailing the agreement between developers using the feature and Apple showed that the feature came with strings attached, Reed Albergotti reports.
For instance, when customers are using the“Find My" network, they're cut off from using other services, such as Android, to control hardware devices. Developers are still required to ask Apple users for permission to share their location data to use the “Find My” service, making the process cumbersome for users.
Apple's tight grip on the iPhone ecosystem is increasingly under scrutiny by antitrust regulators around the world.
Developers say Apple still isn't giving them a level playing field. In most cases, customers have the choice of using multiple apps to control the same hardware devices, such as connecting a Bluetooth headset to both Apple Music and Spotify.
Europe's competition watchdog is already investigating whether Apple gives its own apps an advantage.
Some start-ups say Amazon used investor documents to copy their products.
More than two dozen entrepreneurs, investors and deal advisers accuse Amazon of using its venture capital fund to access proprietary information to develop competing products, Dana Mattioli and Cara Lombardo at the Wall Street Journal report.
In some cases, Amazon's decision to launch a competing product devastated the company it invested in.
Amazon's Alexa Fund bought a stake in Nucleus, a home-video communication device in 2016. Founders' fears were realized when eight months later Amazon announced its Echo Show, which offered similar features to Nucleus.
Nucleus's sales plummeted at major retailers. Nucleus sued Amazon and settled for $5 million. Amazon said the Alexa Fund told Nucleus about the Echo plan before buying a stake in the company; people on the Nucleus side of the deal dispute that.
Amazon denied using confidential information to build competing products.
The allegations could add to antitrust scrutiny the company is facing from Congress, the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department. Smaller companies have also accused Amazon of using data about third-party sellers to create their own competing products.
“They are using market forces in a really Machiavellian way,” said Jeremy Levine, a partner at venture-capital firm Bessemer Venture Partners. “It’s like they are not in any way, shape or form the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. They are a wolf in wolf’s clothing.”
Facebook's handling of Trump's posts sparked unprecedented employee dissent.
Dozens of internal documents and interviews with current and former employees reveal a crisis of confidence in company leadership, Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman at BuzzFeed News report.
“Two years ago, I wouldn’t have had conversations with my colleagues where I would be supporting the advertising boycott,” one employee told BuzzFeed News. “But we are having those conversations now.”
The first turning point came when hundreds of employees called in sick to protest the company's refusal to label a May 28 Trump post on using the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” An internal survey found the number of employees who agreed Facebook made the world a better place dropped by 25 percentage points.
Tensions flared again last month when Facebook failed to act on the concerns of at least eight employees about a Trump campaign ad last month featuring a triangle symbol used by Nazis. Facebook removed the post only after The Post inquired about it.
“Content decisions at Facebook are made based on our best, most even, application of the public policies as written," a Facebook representative said. “It will always be the case that groups of people, even employees, see these decisions as inconsistent.”
Rant and rave
Twitter is exploring a paid subscription model, chief executive Jack Dorsey says.
The company is only in the early stages of exploring the idea, but users had questions about the economics of the model:
Maybe Jack read one too many tweets joking about the site's entertainment value?
There was at least one feature users seemed willing to pay for:
The digital race to 2020
Critics are calling out a Trump campaign ad for using a Ukraine protest photo.
A new Trump campaign Facebook advertisement shows two contrasting photos — one of Trump with police, the other of protesters that seem to be attacking law enforcement. But the new ad painting Trump as the law-and-order candidate has one catch: the picture of protesters is actually from a 2014 protest in Ukraine, Travis M. Andrews reports.
The photo, taken by Ukrainian photographer Mstyslav Chernov, shows pro-democracy protesters in Ukraine clashing with police protecting Viktor Yanukovych, the country’s president. Yanukovych was found guilty of high treason.
The Trump campaign has not responded to a request for comment from The Post. Chernov confirmed the veracity of the photo to Business Insider.
More digital campaign news:
Multiple states are investigating Apple for potentially deceiving consumers.
The Texas attorney general may sue the tech giant for violating the state's deceptive trade practice laws, according to public records obtained by the Tech Transparency Project and shared with Axios. The document does not identify specific practices or which other states are involved.
More government news:
A labor coalition is asking the FTC to investigate Amazon's growth during the pandemic.
The group of unions says the online retailer has abused its dominant market position to keep workers from speaking out about coronavirus-related conditions. The group's complaint notes that Amazon directly employees one-third of all warehouse employees in the country, up from one-quarter before the pandemic.
“Recent evidence of the company’s expanded power to impact the supply of products in numerous categories at the expense of workers, sellers and consumers during the pandemic is a preview of the long-term future,” said Michael Zucker, director of Change to Win, one of the petition's filers. “The time to act is now.”
The same group of unions filed a complaint earlier this year urging the FTC to investigate Amazon's impact on local wages.
Amazon accounts for less than 4 percent of U.S. retail sales and has put safety measures in place during the pandemic, Maxine Tagay, an Amazon representative, told Bloomberg News in response to the complaint.
More workforce news:
- The Senate Homeland Security regulatory affairs subcommittee will hold a hearing to examine modernizing telework, focusing on a review of private sector telework policies during the COVID-19 pandemic Tuesday at 2:30 p.m.
- The Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on The PACT Act and Section 230 on Tuesday at 10 a.m.
- RightsCon will take place online on July 27-31.
Before you log off
Anthony Fauci kicks off baseball season: