Congress showed the breadth of its investigation into the big tech companies Friday, making a public demand for scores of documents, including the personal emails and other communications from dozens of top executives.
Members of the House committee, Republicans and Democrats alike, who are investigating the market power and behavior of the companies sent letters directly to Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, and Larry Page of Google.
The requests called for all communications to and from executives at those companies, including eight at Amazon, 14 at Apple, 15 at Facebook, and 14 at Google.
With the request, which was posted online, the lawmakers made a not-so-subtle point that executives would be held responsible for the replies and that the investigation would continue to play out publicly. That has the potential of damaging the brands’ reputation. They are already dealing with questions about spreading disinformation and failing to respect users’ privacy.
The lawmakers were expected to demand internal corporate documents and communications as part of their antitrust investigations. But those demands are often made to a company’s top lawyer. And the committee asked for all communications related to a long list of corporate actions, from companies bought to treatment of potential rivals. That suggests the congressional staff has done its homework.
Similar inquiries are being conducted by the Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission, and the attorneys general of dozens of states.
The House investigation, like the ones by the federal agencies and states, is really just beginning in earnest. How far they will go, just what they will uncover, and, if it comes to that, whether allegations will stand up in court are all uncertain.
The inquiries into individual companies are complex, as the tech giants span a range of digital markets, including internet search, advertising, e-commerce, and social media. And the companies will most likely resist some of the inquiries by the House committee and other government investigators, contending that to comply would mean handing over corporate trade secrets.
By releasing its information requests, the House committee offered a glimpse of the depth of the scrutiny that the companies will face and laid out the lines of investigation being pursued. And the evidence it collects can also feed the other investigations.
In response to the House committee’s information requests, representatives of the companies mainly pointed to past statements they have already made. The companies have consistently said they would cooperate with the federal and state investigations and that they would seek to demonstrate that they operate in dynamic, highly competitive markets.
In a statement, Representative David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat who leads the subcommittee on antitrust, which is conducting the House investigation, called the document requests “an important milestone” in the fact-gathering stage of its investigation.
Cicilline also emphasized the bipartisan nature of the House effort. The letters to chief executives are signed by Cicilline and Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, but also the ranking Republican members of the Judiciary Committee and the antitrust subcommittee: Doug Collins of Georgia and James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin.
The formal requests for information begin with cover letters to the chief executives, saying the investigators are examining competition in online markets and “whether dominant firms are engaging in anticompetitive conduct.” The letters are accompanied by detailed lists of the documents and communications sought from the named executives.
Just how much of the investigative work will become public as inquiries progress is unclear. Information requests and public declarations are one thing. But that is very different from later stages, when investigators are trying to lay the groundwork for a suit — and won’t want to show their hand to a potential corporate defendant.
Such work, collecting more documents, taking depositions and assembling the evidence, and building the narrative of corporate misbehavior, is best done in private. Major antitrust investigations typically last many months or years.
Sometimes, the companies themselves make disclosures about an investigation. Google, for example, said last Friday that its parent company, Alphabet, had received a mandatory request for information from the Justice Department concerning the company’s previous antitrust investigations.