Are Lawmakers Tech Savvy Enough To Conduct Their Antitrust Investigation?

Jun 5, 2019
Originally published on June 5, 2019 6:37 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A lot of lawmakers on Capitol Hill are not exactly known for their tech savvy. All the same, they are launching an investigation into whether companies such as Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon are too big and too poorly regulated. NPR's Kelsey Snell reports on the challenges Congress faces as it prepares to dig deep on big tech.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Members of Congress say they realize many Americans worry about how powerful tech companies are getting, but when they've tried to bring top executives to Washington to account for their behavior, many lawmakers have revealed just how bad they are at understanding how all of that technology works.

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TED POE: Does Google through this phone know that I have moved here and moved over to the left?

SNELL: That's Texas Republican Ted Poe at a hearing last year with Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Pichai had a complicated answer, and, well, Poe was not satisfied.

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SUNDAR PICHAI: There may be a Google service which you've opted in to use, and if...

POE: So Google knows that I am moving over there. It's not a trick question.

SNELL: Then there was former Utah Senator Orrin Hatch asking Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg how his business stays afloat.

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ORRIN HATCH: How do you sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your service?

MARK ZUCKERBERG: Senator, we run ads.

SNELL: At the time, Poe was in his 60s, and Hatch was over 80. People said their gaffes were, well, because Congress is mostly pretty old. And that may be true, but younger members like Congressman Ro Khanna, a Democrat who represents a lot of Silicon Valley, says the problem goes deeper and can't just be blamed on age.

RO KHANNA: There has been a dereliction of duty in Congress and a technological illiteracy for many years.

SNELL: Khanna is something of a tech expert in Congress in part because they're his constituents and often his donors but also because technology is simply part of the fabric of American life. And he says Congress has a history of turning a blind eye to a virtually unregulated industry.

KHANNA: There's probably been too much of a deference to these companies in the past, but now it's led to an overreaction the other way where there's an urge to act but a lack of understanding and expertise about what is needed.

SNELL: Travis Moore is a former congressional staffer who launched an organization called TechCongress. Their goal is to send technology experts to Capitol Hill, where very few congressional staffers have any formal tech training.

TRAVIS MOORE: Congress doesn't know what it doesn't know on technology. I think that's one of the fundamental challenges here - is that we need people in the building that first and foremost know the right questions to ask.

SNELL: Questions like, when does a tech company like Facebook become a dangerous monopoly, or, what does Congress do to stop foreign governments from using social media to interfere in our elections? Kristin Nicholson, the director of the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University, says congressional budget cuts combined with the huge salaries on offer in Silicon Valley make it hard for members and committees to recruit tech experts to come to Washington. And there's more at risk for lawmakers than just an embarrassing video on social media.

KRISTIN NICHOLSON: We want the staff and the members that are making these billion-dollar decisions about issues that affect every member of the public to be well-informed and educated, to have the time and the resources to dive deeply into these complicated issues.

SNELL: Congress has a lot of catching up to do. They're already planning hearings on the massive and complicated task of deciding what, if anything, they should do to break up big tech. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.