What to expect from blockbuster antitrust hearing with CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook

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Jeff Bezos at the Museum of Flight’s 2016 Pathfinder Awards. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

For the first two decades of Amazon’s life, its founding CEO, Jeff Bezos, did his best to stay out of political battles, trying to stay off the radar of regulators in the early tradition of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. But Bezos abandoned all of that when he bought The Washington Post, the largest mansion in Washington D.C., and turned up the dial on Amazon’s lobbying spending.

On Wednesday, Bezos will continue following in the footsteps of the man he usurped as the richest person in the world, testifying before Congress on antitrust issues, 22 years after Gates defended Microsoft’s competitive behavior before federal lawmakers.

A lot has changed in two decades, and Wednesday’s Big Tech hearing will reflect that. For one, it will be held virtually due to the ongoing coronavirus threat. And Bezos won’t be up there alone.

Unlike the days when Microsoft was in a league of its own, today the technology industry is ruled by a handful of giants. That concerns the House subcommittee on antitrust, as well as regulators at the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice, which have divvied up inquiries into the competitive behavior of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Microsoft is not a subject of scrutiny, largely avoiding the current techlash after clearing regulatory hurdles in the 1990s and 2000s.

The chief executives of each company — Bezos, Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, and Sundar Pichai — are set to testify before the House subcommittee on Wednesday. All but Bezos have appeared before Congress before. Gates, for his part, wishes them well.

Here’s what to expect from the long-anticipated hearing: 

How to watch: The hearing will be held at 12:00 p.m. ET/9:00 a.m. PT. It will be streamed on the House Judiciary Committee website.

What to look for: Last July, the same antitrust subcommittee grilled lawyers from the four companies whose CEOs will testify Wednesday, reserving some of the toughest questions for Amazon. They focused primarily on Amazon’s private label strategy, in which the tech giant produces in-house products that often compete with private label sellers in its marketplace.

Bezos can expect similarly tough questions on Wednesday, though Amazon’s treatment of warehouse workers, counterfeits, and other issues could also be on the table.

Apple and Google will almost certainly be asked to respond to complaints that they wield too much power over developers in their app stores.

Facebook has arguably faced more scrutiny from federal officials than any other tech giant this decade. Zuckerberg can probably expect questions on election interference, privacy, disinformation, and political bias.

All four CEOs could be interrogated about their companies’ acquisitions over the past few years, which critics say hinder competition in tech.

Beginning of the end: The hearing is the culmination of a year-long antitrust investigation in which House lawmakers have reviewed more than 1.3 million documents and held 385 hours of meetings and briefings in preparation of this moment, according to Axios.

Yes, but: The virtual setting is not as conducive to the fireworks that have defined previous hearings with Big Tech CEOs, like Gates and Zuckerberg. It’s more likely that the executives will be able to consult with attorneys and other members of their teams because the hearing will be held over video conference.

Tech’s defensive strategy: The companies under scrutiny — and trade groups that advocate for them — have released studies and policy changes over the past few weeks that aim to show competition is alive and well the technology industry.

What comes next: As lawmakers, the House subcommittee has a limited number of levers it can pull to improve competition in the tech sector. The investigation and hearing could inform new legislation, if Congress chooses to rewrite century-old antitrust law. But the power to enforce existing laws lies with the DOJ and FTC.

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