During Wednesday’s congressional antitrust hearing, the CEOs of Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook used their opening statements to try and paint themselves—and their companies—as uniquely American success stories with humble origins, heart-warming anecdotes, and impactful lessons for the American people.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ statement wasted no time retelling his origin story: born to a single mother and adopted by a Cuban immigrant, Bezos was inspired in part by summers at his grandfather’s ranch (and a small $245,000 investment from his parents) to become a garage inventor and eventually create Amazon in 1994. Now, Amazon has 1.7 million small and medium-sized businesses selling on his platform, and has created 2.2 million jobs around the world, but Bezos was quick to remind Congress that Amazon accounts for "less than 1 percent of the $25 trillion global retail market" and "less than 4 percent of the retail in the U.S."
Bezos wasn’t alone in portraying his company as representing some aspect of what one might call the American dream, or America itself. Google CEO Sundar Pichai framed the hearing as being about “opportunity” and said that, growing up in India, he didn’t have much access to a computer until he came to America to study. Although Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg didn’t invoke the humble dorm room origin mythos that has given his company so much cover in the past, he said that “the tech industry is an American success story.” Apple CEO Tim Cook described his company as a “uniquely American company.”
While these CEOs talked a lot about America and its possibilities, and how their companies and even personal histories embody it, it is undeniable that their actions are undermining what they claim to celebrate.
For years, Amazon’s abusive work policies have made each warehouse into a “colony from hell,” as one employee put it, rife with injuries and mental breakdowns. The pandemic has made this point virtually indisputable given the many outbreaks of Covid-19 in warehouses, retaliation against workers who raised safety concerns, and labor actions by Amazon workers fed up with working conditions. Just last week, America’s largest unions petitioned the FTC to investigate Amazon’s exploitation of the Covid-19 pandemic over concerns that it was suppressing wages, exploiting data on sellers to undermine their products, and leveraging its dominance in cloud computing to make competitors reliant on Amazon’s offerings.
The company also operates as part of the backbone of ICE’s deportation machine, offered a racially-biased facial recognition software to police departments nationwide, and transmits fear and racist paranoia to suburbs through its Ring surveillance program and its partnerships with over 600 police departments (as of December 2019). These are all functions of its incredible market power, even if they didn’t come up as topics in the antitrust hearing, and they all have the potential to destroy someone’s own shot at opportunity in America and elsewhere.
A quick glance reveals the same is true for the other companies. Apple and Google are both being sued for using Congolese child miners to secure cobalt and other minerals at minimal cost, resulting in the maiming and death of several children. Apple is also a key player in reducing opportunities for individuals and small businesses in America to repair their devices, leading to calls for right to repair legislation.
Facebook has spent years apologizing and promising to do better after facilitating a genocide in Myanmar, cratering the news industry, harming the mental health of users and content moderators, compromising elections, attempting to remake the global monetary system with it as a key player, spreading hate speech and propaganda, and more.
These companies, and the tech industry at large, are all complicit in racist police violence that has existed long before their arrival but become supercharged in underappreciated ways with their help. It is hard to imagine any company could do any of these actions unless it enjoyed market dominance in multiple industries and leveraged that into control over how each of us went about our daily lives (how we watched videos, conducted searches, carried out commerce, consumed the news, engaged in communication, etc.) —which makes it hard to understand why we should let these companies have that much power in the first place.
These CEOs insist we play on their terms—terms that are incredibly profitable for them—and return to market logic—to the American Dream and its promise of cheap goods, services, and material abudunance. But that promise has been dead for years, a fact that the pandemic has made self-evident. That the technology sector seems to be a bright spot of the American (and global) economy doesn’t actually suggest that they are success stories as much as it reveals that the rest of the world has lost.
Sure, the price we’ve paid for allowing these corporate tech giants to get so large includes real damage to our economy and democracy, but they’ve also suffocated our political imagination and left us arguing on their terms about how much exploitation and how much surveillance is necessary for the ideal levels of economic growth.