This is perjury: the Big Tech hearings, summarized
By Mark Hurst • July 30, 2020
What happened yesterday on Capitol Hill - the most significant antitrust hearings in a generation, and possibly the most important tech-related hearings ever convened - reminds me of a story. I call it "Timmy and the cookie jar." It goes like this:
One day, Timmy's mom walked into the kitchen and spotted little Timmy with his hand in the cookie jar. She was angry! Timmy was old enough to know that he was breaking a serious rule of the house.
"Timmy," Mom said, "Do you have your hand in the cookie jar?"
"Good afternoon, Mom," Timmy said. "Thank you so much for that question. You are right to explore instances of hands tranversing the boundary into a porcelain enclosure, which-"
"Timmy," Mom said, her face reddening, "you know that you're breaking a rule here. That's cheating."
"I'm not sure I would agree with that characterization," Timmy said, hand still fully implanted deep into the jar.
"Timmy, do you have your hand in the cookie jar?" Mom asked again, speaking slowly and enunciating each word clearly.
"I'm having trouble remembering whether I placed my hand into a jar, though perhaps there are dessert-oriented containers that children have, at times-"
"Timmy, you're not telling me the truth. That's lying."
"Thank you, Mom, for taking the time to investigate this, though I'd like to point out that I was born in a country that celebrates entrepreneurs. Risk takers. Innovators. My retrieval of sugary baked goods is an economic miracle that all Americans can celebrate."
"Timmy, you know those cookies belong to your grandmother. We were going to take them to her later today. That's stealing."
The scene slowly fades out, as we see clones of Timmy all over the neighborhood, stealing cookies from jars, and as we zoom out even further we can see Timmys in homes across the country, stealing pies, stealing cakes, smiling to Mom, always smiling as they lie, and lie, and lie... and finally we cut to Grandma, sitting alone, quiet in a rocking chair, awaiting the cookies... that will never arrive.
How'd I do? That was my attempt to summarize, in a few sentences, the several hours of hearings featuring Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, Tim Cook, and Jeff Bezos, all under questioning from the House Antitrust Subcommittee. Committee chair Rep. David Cicilline from Rhode Island was sharp and impressive, as were several of the other committee members.
Our bajillionaire Big Tech leaders, on the other hand, were not so sharp or impressive. The CEOs of Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon - all testifying via videoconference - squirmed just slightly as they scrupulously tried to avoid answering the well-prepared questions from the committee. The CEOs were, after all, under oath - even Zuck, who in past testimony had negotiated out of swearing-in. Any lies the CEOs told, in other words, would amount to perjury.
Three takeaways from the hearings
• First: Congress won. The tired cliche of "Congress is too slow to understand tech" is dead. Bzzzzt, thank you, you're done. This committee did its homework. The path toward antitrust breakups, and heavy regulation, is fully illuminated and freshly paved. The showdown for democracy, which began almost exactly one year ago (as I wrote here) just notched a major victory for the "good team": all of us who favor democracy instead of techno-totalitarian feudalism.
• Second: The CEOs shamed themselves. These four guys - really six guys, if you include Pichai's two shadow bosses, Larry Page and Sergey Brin - are overseeing companies that have broken every rule in my simple tech ethic from last week. Namely: They cheat. They lie. And they steal. And the CEOs spent nearly six hours yesterday denying, deflecting, and outright lying about all of it.
• Third takeaway: The Democrats led the charge. I try not to get into partisan politics either here or on my radio show, but I have to point out that for the most part it was the Democrats who addressed Big Tech's assault on privacy and competitive markets - i.e., things that threaten all Americans - while the Republicans tended to focus on a perceived "anti-conservative bias," i.e., something that affects only Republicans. I point this out not to dismiss the Republicans' complaints, but instead to show that they framed the issues as only affecting Republicans (whereas, in fact, opaque filtering does exist, but it affects everyone, as I wrote about recently, and Maciej had this comment). The partisan approach is all wrong. Big Tech is threatening all of us, and so we're better off fighting the tech monsters as one team.
Now to the issues. The committee exposed Big Tech's cheating, lying, and stealing in two broad categories. Since I like bold headers, let's call them "corruption buckets" - I guess the kind of bucket we'll put toxic, foul slop in, as we clean up after Silicon Valley giants.
Corruption bucket 1: Anti-trust bullying
All four CEOs were taken to task by the committee for abusing their privileged view of data, within their app store or marketplace. The scam runs like this: build a monopoly marketplace where everyone has to sell their products. Analyze the data to see which products, or apps, are doing well. Now launch your own copycat version and use it to squeeze out the small business that innovated that product, until they're out of business. Congrats! You've just strengthened your monopoly with crime. Now rinse and repeat.
The best explainer I've found on the scam is How Amazon Screws Third-Party Sellers - which shows it in five easy steps just in case you're feeling crimey and want to try out the shameful behavior demonstrated by the leaders of our economy.
Here are some choice moments from the hearings:
• Rep. Johnson hammered Tim Cook on Apple's anticompetitive cheating. Cook claims it's a "street fight for market share" in smartphone app stores, citing the duopoly of iOS and Android, and then perjuriously adding in Windows, which about three people actually use for smartphones, and XBox and Playstation, which don't even have smartphone app stores. See video of questioning.
(By the way, about "perjuriously." Is that a word?)
• Cook also repeatedly said that "we treat every developer the same." No doubt if he had been asked about Netflix, which Apple treats differently, he would have claimed to never have heard of Netflix. Here's Matt Stoller's comment, which leads me to ask: hey, Tim Cook, does perjury stay exciting, or does it get old after awhile?
• Rep. Jayapal hammered Jeff Bezos on the apparent perjury a year ago of Amazon counsel Nate Sutton (the subject of a criminal investigation that I wrote about on May 7, the perjury having occurred in the hearings I also wrote about last year), then lays out the facts about Amazon's exploitation of third-party sellers: See video of questioning, or see it in these three excerpts.
• Later, Rep. Cicilinne hammered Bezos on his monopolistic behavior, which Bezos wouldn't deny doing: See video of questioning. Rep. McBath questioned Bezos, too, about his obvious exploitation of third-party sellers, and played audio from a seller to prove it. Bezos was shocked, SHOCKED to discover that this is happening within his own company! Matt Stoller had this comment.
• Then Rep. Jayapal hammered Zuck on his illegal "copy-acquire-kill" policy against competitors like Instagram and Snapchat - see video - for which Zuck had no good answer. Buzzfeed's Ryan Mac posted that a Facebook employee texted him at that moment: "We're literally copying TikTok right now." And here's Will Oremus's comment.
Corruption bucket 2: Surveillance capitalism
The committee hammered Google and Facebook for surveilling users' communications, activity, app usage, and other aspects of their lives. This surveillance is central to Google's and Facebook's business model, as they use the data to create a dossier on each user that is then used to predict, control, and monetize users' activity, purely for the benefit of Google and Facebook. (The book, really a masterpiece, that describes this practice in detail is The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, by Shoshana Zuboff, who I interviewed on Techtonic last year.)
Neither CEO would admit to engaging in surveillance capitalism:
• Sundar Pichai claimed that "We don't use data from Gmail for ads." Which is so obviously deceptive - Gmail is a centerpiece of Google's surveillance-for-profit machine - that I had to ask Twitter if I heard it right. And yes, I did: here's the moment Pichai said it (midway through Rep. Armstrong's questioning). I just wonder, Sundar: is perjury fun like eating ice cream? Or is it more exciting, like a roller coaster?
(At least Pichai was consistent. Earlier in the day, as Rep. Val Demings hammered him, Pichai claimed that Google doesn't make money from collecting user data. This is top-tier lying, people! He's one to watch!)
• Rep. Johnson hammered Zuck on his use of surveillance - see video of questioning - and Zuck lied multiple times, saying that his data collection is merely "market research" - claiming it's like the harmless surveys that companies often send out - and used solely to make Facebook's products better for users. Then Zuck clearly perjures himself by claiming he's never heard of the Facebook app that paid teenagers a few dollars for their private data - the subject of a months-long crisis for Facebook. (A few minutes later, no doubt on the advice of his lawyers, Zuck stammered that he had, in fact, heard of that app. Matt Stoller commented: "Zuckerberg just corrected himself here because his lawyers read Twitter and understand perjury is a problem.")
And I wasn't the only one laughing. Shoshana Zuboff herself wrote back, saying she imagined lots of people were amused by Zuck's gaslighting:
Bonus: Corruption bucket 3: Zuck's amplifier of toxic sludge
Hey look, I found another bucket of Silicon Valley toxic waste - it's another present from Zuck! This one concerns Facebook's role as amplifier of hate and disinformation, something I wrote about in The algorithmic amplifier fueling corruption in Silicon Valley on May 29.
• Cicilline hammered Zuck on his amplification of toxic content - See video of questioning. Zuck claimed, and someone hand this guy an award for not laughing as he tells this whopper - that amplifying toxic content, which also happens to generate the most engagement and thus revenue, is bad for Facebook's business. Here's DHH's comment. And Public Citizen posted the excerpt.
I watched most of the five-plus hours of hearings, and here's one thing I still don't understand:
How do these guys sleep at night?
I mean, perjuring yourself is exhausting and all, but how do you actually fall asleep after a day like that? I mean, how do you look yourself in the mirror - after lying, deflecting, deferring, acting shocked, SHOCKED, pretending to care about the people you're exploiting, and lying some more - and then sleep at night?
Not to say there wasn't some fun along the way. Ali Al-Khatib provided us with a Tech BS Bingo card. (Some people were posting a filled-in card within a couple of hours.) And from The Markup, the "I'll get back to you" tally (spoiler: Bezos won).
Charlie Brown and more reading
Now's when Charlie Brown comes out and tells you to "go to your local library to learn more." Here's what I'd suggest:
• Long blow-by-blow thread by Jason Kint
• Another good thread by David Dayen, covering the whole day
• Lies from the CEOs, broken down by Geoff Fowler (bonus, posted on Jeff Bezos's own newspaper!)
• The final word from Rep. Cicilline, quoting Justice Brandeis. And I can't put it any better than that.
Until next time,
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