Big Tech and Antitrust Hearing: A Daytime TV Show

I watched the vast majority of the antitrust hearing where Jeff Bezos, Sundar Pichai, Tim Cook, and Mark Zuckerberg were present to make opening remarks and then take “questions” from members of congress. I was hoping there would be more back and forth and that there would be more discussion with the CEOs of these big tech companies, but that was not the case. The direction of the topics and questions were a bit all over the place. There are many angles that came out of the hearing, one strong one being the vast insufficiency of the answers from many of the CEOs who had to use their words carefully to dance around with their answers. But the first thing I wanted to hit on, which was the most glaringly obvious, is how broken this process is and how the government will dramatically need to adapt if they want to see meaningful change around tech going forward.

Talking not Listening
This was billed as a hearing, but it was just talking. Part of that has to do with the format. Members of Congress had 5 minutes per questioning round, and because of that, they spent more time making a point than having a discussion or letting the CEOs respond accordingly. More often than not, the Congress member questioning the CEOs cut them off and rarely let them explain. For me, this is the first thing that needs to change format-wise. The 5 min per person does not allow for meaningful opportunity to engage in discussion and listen but only to make a point in a very trial/courtroom like way.

This format was not the way to have the most genuine dialogue with these CEOs. Both Pichai and Zuckerberg have shown up in person for a hearing with them individually, and I found that a much more effective format allowed for more time and more scrutiny of the answers provided. In this current COVID situation, I understand not being able to organize full-day sessions with each of these CEOs individually. Still, from the information gathered, if Congress wants to proceed, I firmly believe a follow up with each of these CEOs is necessary.

The other element this format induced was the opportunity for several members of Congress to grandstand and simply pander to their constituents vs. ask meaningful questions of the CEOs present that would help shed light on the antitrust conversation. To that degree, the conversation also went back and forth with questions to Pichai on Google and Zuckerberg on Facebook that were less about antitrust/anti-competitive behavior and more about censorship and free speech. While I understand some potential elements of overlap, this (the power of Google and Facebook and the issue of censorship and free speech) seems like something worth having more dedicated conversations about.

Predetermined Conclusions
Another bothersome element of this format was the pre-determined conclusions. There was a lot of work done in advance of this hearing and a great deal of evidence to support positions of anti-competitive behavior. While I thought several members of Congress, Rep. Pramila Jayapal being primary among them had very good questions and good banter back and forth, the vast majority of Congressional participants felt the need to push their agenda, or bias, in their questioning rather than meaningfully look for answers to the issues they put forth. This was unfortunate because many did bring legitimate issues to the table but attempted to force the CEOs into yes or no answers rather than seek to understand the CEO’s perspective or answer. This was also a byproduct of the 5 minute limit per person as they felt the need to rush to address all their topics. Again, a completely flawed process, in my opinion.

While I understand the need to prepare remarks, it was the pre-meditated prepared conclusion from Rep. David N. Cicilline that showed quite clearly their minds were made up before this hearing, and how the entire thing was a dog-and-pony show rather than an attempt to listen and learn. Here is a brief excerpt from his concluding remarks, which he read aloud at the end of the hearing.

This hearing has made one fact clear to me—these companies as they exist today have monopoly power.

Some need to be broken up; all need to be properly regulated and held accountable.

We need to ensure the antitrust laws first written more than a century ago work in the digital age.

When these laws were written, the monopolists were men named Rockefeller and Carnegie.

Their control of the marketplace allowed them to do whatever it took to crush independent businesses and expand their power.

Well, the names have changed, but the story is the same.

Today, the men are named Zuckerberg, Cook, Pichai, and Bezos.

Once again, their control of the marketplace allows them to do whatever it takes to crush independent businesses and expand their power.

This must end.

Minds were made up before the hearing, an,d there was nothing the CEOs would say that was going to change. So again, what was the point? It was not to listen and learn, so in the big picture, was it helpful or necessary?

The Ability to Actually Compete
Being someone who appreciates observing and studying business strategy, I found troubling the emphasis on some basic competitive tactics, employed by businesses of all shapes and sizes, as being anti-competitive. Observers were noting on Twitter, as the hearing was progressing, that clearly, a new definition of monopoly or even anti-competitive practices needs to be adapted for the modern business arena. But the tone members from congress took, at least to me casually watching in, was one that these companies should not even have the right to compete. The tone and direction of much of the questioning were suggesting these companies should not have the chance to use competitive tactics to protect their businesses.

My worry, should this proceed to a case and we get to a spot where remedies are enforced, is the degree that overall competition itself is harmed. The over-bearing fear of monopoly carries with it the consequence of causing companies to compete in the market with their hands tied behind their back. This would be bad for business, bad for America, and just overall bad.

I’m certainly in favor of keeping companies accountable, which is why I wish this process were better suited to gather relevant information, by knowledgeable people in the space, to suggest potential solutions that lead to better change for all. Too often, in most cases, the attempt to regulate has little to no change in the market and, in some instances, hurts consumers more than its effort to help them.

This topic isn’t going away, and in many cases, I personally was not satisfied with many of the answers given by the CEOs. I hope a follow-up, with much more discussion, ends up happening in the not too distant future.

Video Conference Fatigue and a Better Way

As we are several months into remote working, I think it is safe to assume that humans are not meant to sit through 4-5 hours of video meetings in the same way they are not meant to sit in 4-5 hours of meetings all day every day.

From early on, when COVID-19 forced economic shutdowns and many industries forced to rush into a work from home/work remote situation, we have been tracking the process. We did some research, and the chart below shows how rapidly the increase in video meetings as a normal day to day activity rose.

As we had conversations with employees at various companies of different sizes and in different industries, it has been fascinating to see the early positivity in video meetings by many we talked with. Fast forward now two months into the situation, and the sentiment as changed in several specific ways.

Early on, and in particular, as our social interactions became limited, video seemed to be a welcome way to interact with colleagues. Companies rushed to replace the day to day in-person interactions with video calls, and that was a primary reason for the spike in video meetings being reported by Zoom, Microsoft with Teams, and Google with Meet. But after about a month, video call fatigue set in, and we see it in various forms now today.

In April, I wrote about this for subscribers, and linked to this article and highlighted this paragraph.

‘One reason may be that most video calling platforms will include the user’s camera view on the call screen. It is likely that this is enhancing our self-awareness to a greater level than usual and therefore resulting in us making additional self-presentation efforts than in face-to-face interactions in the real world.

‘Another explanation for fatigue may simply be from technical restrictions and our inability to be able to fully use the usual array of social cues and non-verbal communication. Within video calls, the bandwidth of social cues is much narrower, and we have to pay additional attention to others’ behavior to enable us to monitor social interactions effectively. These extra attentional efforts can become tiring over time.

Nilay Patel from The Verge tweeted this yesterday, which is a sentiment I have heard from dozens of friends and colleagues already who want to go back to audio calls and not a video for 1:1 interactions or with people you are familiar with.

I noticed this early on as well in my own experiences where being on video, where someone was watching you, took another level of focus and energy as an element of participation. I like to multitask, stand, walk around to think, and more, and that is very hard to do when sitting looking present in front of a camera.

I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve had with friends who simply find it refreshing to talk audio-only rather than Zoom. Nilay’s point was well-received on Twitter, with many commenters agreeing with him.

There is a time for video meetings, and there is a time for audio calls, and the refinement in criteria is what is being worked out right now. However, as a result of this exercise, I firmly believe those refinements in the process will trickle down to impact in-person meetings once people are allowed to go back to the office, and some sense of in-person work returns to normalcy. Not every meeting needs to be a physical meeting. Physical meetings also require a great deal of energy and, limited them to the absolute necessity will have a positive impact on everyone’s productivity.

That being said, if I’m directionally correct in this shift, then it means we need much more innovation in the software, tools, services, and even hardware, to make remote collaboration even better than if it was done in person or over a video call. This is the challenge but also the opportunity to innovate on many levels.

For me, this whole experience has brought to light new understandings of what the failures are of real-time remote collaboration as well as the failures and challenges of in-person meetings. While I know the effectiveness of in-person meetings and subsequent best practices have been studied, I still think there is more digital solutions have to offer that can marry the best of both worlds. There is no perfect solution, and there may never be, but I firmly believe there is an opportunity to innovate here. Those who do may end up gaining a stronghold on digital transformation and the new era of collaboration that sits ahead of us.