Congress Doesn’t Get Big Tech. By Design.

Technology|Congress Doesn’t Get Big Tech. By Design.

on tech

Members of Congress may say dumb things at the tech hearing, but it’s not necessarily their fault.

Credit…Tom Brenner/The New York Times

Shira Ovide

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I’ll make an easy prediction about Wednesday’s congressional hearing into the power of big tech companies: Members of Congress will say dumb things.

But please don’t believe that these people are too old or too clueless to exercise effective oversight of tech superpowers.

This idea, which is prevalent inside of tech companies, lets the tech giants off the hook for what they do. It shows a smug superiority that is not a good look. And it ignores that tech companies are built around software that is designed not to be understood by outsiders.

(Follow The Times’s live coverage of the hearing.)

After Mark Zuckerberg’s first turns in the congressional hot seat two years ago, people inside of Facebook thought that their boss had completely dominated those old fogies. I’ve heard this from Facebook executives. Their conclusions have worried me.

Members of Congress were fairly blamed for not understanding Facebook, but Zuckerberg didn’t get enough blame for failing to make Facebook understood. He dodged, occasionally misled and essentially tried to say as little as possible about how Facebook works. At points, he didn’t seem to know how Facebook worked, either.

Executives from Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple at a hearing last year likewise seemed to intentionally deflect or dismiss what were generally excellent questions from lawmakers. (Seriously, I could have stared at C-SPAN for many more hours.) No one inside the big tech companies should have felt like they “won.”

To be fair, that is part of the theatrics of all congressional hearings. Members of Congress grandstand and witnesses generally try to be inoffensive or run out the clock.

Yet it’s in everyone’s interest to complete this set of hearings and effectively address these central questions: Are these big technology companies cheating to get a leg up over competitors? If so, does that hurt all of us and what — if anything — should the government do about it?

If members of Congress are confused about how to ask and answer these questions, that’s partly because big tech companies are confusing.

Few people on the outside can truly understand how Amazon influences the prices of products we buy on its site or at other retailers; assess fears that Google funnels people to its own websites or that Apple steers people to its own apps; or peer into Facebook’s strategy to squash rivals in their cribs. All of this is, by design, shrouded in secrecy and mystery.

Even many of the big tech companies now say that there needs to be more federal oversight and rules regarding areas like protecting elections and what constitutes appropriate speech online.

That means everyone — the tech companies, lawmakers and you and me — have a vested interest in getting under the hood of these big companies and seeing how they work.

This is a worthy goal — just as it was to assess the big banks after the 2008 financial crisis. Those banks also thought Congress was too clueless to question them effectively. Maybe so, but regulation came anyway.

What questions do you have about the hearing and the power of big tech? Send them to, and Shira will answer a selection in an upcoming newsletter. Please include your full name and location.

Me again, taking another moment to talk about Wednesday’s hearing — Sorry! Not sorry! — to explain what it is NOT about.

How big the tech companies are compared with the planet Jupiter: In his prepared testimony for Wednesday’s hearing, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos cited competition from the grocery delivery service Instacart and mentioned the fast sales growth of Walmart’s online shopping operation.

Sure, but online sales at those companies are a minuscule fraction of Amazon’s. There will be a lot of slicing and dicing of data for misdirection like this. Please ignore.

The assessment of tech company power is not solely about their size or that of rivals. It is also about their behavior: Do big tech companies tilt the game to their advantage in a way that creates less competition?

Whether these sites show political bias: We’ll hear a lot about this today, because some conservatives and Republican politicians argue that big tech companies habitually squash information reflecting conservative perspectives.

There’s little credible reporting to support this, but a root cause of the concern is what I mentioned above: Outsiders can’t see or assess the software that determines what information we see online. Black boxes naturally create suspicion.

How tech companies influence what information we’re exposed to, and how they fairly police what people say online, are complicated topics worthy of debate. However, I’m not sure that there’s a direct connection between those topics and the central question at Wednesday’s hearing: Do big tech companies cheat to win?

How many American jobs they create: In a letter to Congress, Google’s chief executive touted a (delicious sounding) brownie shop in New York that drums up business from buying ads on Google. Bezos talked up Amazon training programs to pay for warehouse workers to move into higher-paying careers.

This is great! We want American companies to create jobs and contribute to economic growth. But companies that create jobs and support small businesses can still break the law by unfairly exercising their power and influence.

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  • How to support alternatives to Big Tech: My colleague Brian X. Chen tells us how we can help tech’s little guys if we’re concerned about having choices. Brian suggests trying the search engine DuckDuckGo, the social network Mastodon and other alternatives to Big Tech products; advises us to buy used electronics to help repair shops and resellers; and asks us to consider paying for software we like from smaller companies rather than taking freebies from the tech giants.

  • That coronavirus video was tailored to go wild: My colleagues Sheera Frenkel and Davey Alba walked through the stagecraft of a viral video that promoted an unproven coronavirus treatment as a miracle cure. With ingredients including an official-looking setting, people in white medical coats and the ability to clip the video and share it on social media easily, the video had been designed to appeal to those who don’t trust public health officials and want quick fixes to get past the pandemic.

  • Can facial recognition technology be effective, unbiased and do more good than harm? Those are questions raised by this Reuters investigation into the use of the technology at 200 Rite Aid drugstores in the United States.

    Facial recognition systems that were intended partly to notify store workers about potential shoplifters were more likely to be installed at stores in neighborhoods with a large share of lower-income or Black or Latino residents, and shoppers were not generally told that their images were being captured and analyzed. At times the facial recognition software also misidentified people. Rite Aid told Reuters it had suspended use of the cameras.

This dancing duet of a woman and cat is just plain weird. (Thanks to the Bloomberg columnist Tae Kim for bringing this TikTok video into my life.)

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July 30, 2020
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