US Rep. Jim Jordan has a reputation for being a firecracker. The Ohio Republican lived up to that Wednesday.
During an otherwise confrontational but contained House antitrust subcommittee hearing about alleged monopolistic practices of Big Tech, Jordan erupted in anger at one of his fellow lawmakers, resulting in a short-lived but cacophonous standoff.
The exchange started when Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, started her questioning by saying: "Thank you, gentlemen, I'd like to redirect your attention to antitrust law rather than fringe conspiracy theories."
The comment was a clear swipe at Jordan, who had spent his time hammering Google CEO Sundar Pichai over claims his company had secretly helped Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign. After Scanlon's zinger, Jordan loudly interrupted her to defend himself. Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, the committee chairman, barked back at Jordan, "You do not have the time." Another member of Congress brusquely told Jordan, "Put your mask on," a reference to a requirement that any lawmaker not questioning witness was to wear a mask as a protection from coronavirus. (Jordan also raised eyebrows when he asked about "cancel culture," a question that prompted careful responses from the tech bosses, including Bezos' concern that social media was a "nuance destruction machine.")
Jordan's outburst was one of several notable moments that punctuated the subcommittee's hearing, which brought Pichai, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Apple CEO Tim Cook together before lawmakers. The hearing focused on whether these companies have become so powerful that they are unfairly bending the market to their will and forcing other businesses to work with them on their terms because alternatives don't exist.
After his opening statement, Bezos' feed was plagued by technical difficulties so he didn't get asked a question for more than an hour. A person familiar with the matter said the issue wasn't with Amazon. The company had repeatedly tested its feed, the person said, and it had been working properly.
When Bezos was finally available for questioning following a recess, Rep. Lucy McBath, Democrat of Georgia, played him an audio recording of a bookseller on his platform. The seller said Amazon slowly started restricting what her company, which supports 14 people, could sell until she wasn't able to sell a single book in 10 months. Emails to Amazon, including to Bezos, were largely ignored.
Bezos said such a situation was unacceptable and he sought to look into it. But McBath said the problem was a broader indication of Amazon repeatedly mistreating small businesses on its platform: "This is not just about one business. I'm concerned that this is a pattern of behavior, and basically this pattern of behavior has to change."
In another pointed line of attack against Bezos, Cicilline told the Amazon boss a story about an apparel seller that was making $60,000 a year on an item on Amazon. He said those sales dropped to zero overnight after Amazon started selling the exact same item, but at a price so low the smaller seller was unable to match it.
"Here's how the apparel company described working with Amazon, and I quote," Cicilline said. "'Amazon strings you along for a while because it feels so good to get that paycheck every week, and in the past, for lack of a better term, we called it 'Amazon heroin' because you just kept going, and you had to get your next fix, your next check. At the end of the day, you find out that this person who is seemingly benefiting you, making you feel good, is just ultimately going to be your downfall."
After Cicilline asked Bezos why a partner seller would compare Amazon to a drug dealer, Bezos said, "I completely disagree with that characterization." He added Amazon opened up its retail store to outside sellers to benefit customers and provide them with more choices.
Break up Big Tech
Perhaps the most important part of the hearing occurred at the very end of its five and a half hours. That's when Cicilline, in closing remarks, made clear that Congress had strong measures in mind for Big Tech.
"This hearing has made one fact clear to me," Cicilline said. "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."