The Big Tech hearings won’t lead to real change. That’s okay.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress in October 2019. | Aurora Samperio/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The heads of Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon are going to get grilled. But that won’t lead — directly — to regulation. On Wednesday, four of the most powerful men in the world will answer pointed questions from US lawmakers who have real concerns about the massive tech companies these men lead. The big, overriding theme of the virtual antitrust hearing: Are Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple too powerful? So powerful that they should be broken up?
The hearing, which will be livestreamed, is a historic event and you should watch it, or at least follow coverage.
But you should also go into this with your expectations set: It’s quite likely that the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee’s hearing on Wednesday, featuring Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Apple CEO Tim Cook, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, will generate a viral soundbite or two. It’s even possible that something one of the CEOs says will become ammunition used against them in a legal fight down the road.
But what won’t happen on Wednesday is anything that has a direct impact on how, or if, the biggest tech companies in the world are regulated.
Some of you already know that congressional hearings are just that — a chance to hear from citizens and government officials. At a minimum, they are a place to get public answers on the record, like the grilling US Attorney General William Barr received from the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday over everything from his handling of the Mueller investigation to his use of federal troops to quell protests in Washington, DC, and Portland, Oregon.
And sometimes, like in Wednesday’s case, they can also be high-profile bits of theater.
But they don’t directly lead to any rule-changing or law-making. That stuff will or won’t happen, for the most part, off-camera. Some of it will be in closed-door meetings between regulators and lobbyists from the tech companies; some may be in legal proceedings, like an expected antitrust suit in the works against Alphabet , led by state attorneys general. The Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission are also pursuing investigations into all four of the companies whose leaders are testifying on Wednesday.
In theory, any antitrust lawsuit could eventually play out with an order to break the companies up, like Standard Oil at the beginning of the 20th century and the Bell Telephone system in the 1980s. (Twenty years ago, a court order was also supposed to break up Microsoft, though that never went through.) But that’s a very long game.
As a reminder: With the exception of Amazon’s Bezos , the other three tech leaders have all sat before Congress before. If you are deep into this stuff, you may recall the one significant takeaway from Zuckerberg’s testimony in the...