News Brief: Big Tech Hearing, Democrats Press Barr, Ashtabula County's Changes

Jul 29, 2020
Originally published on July 30, 2020 5:00 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. So executives from Amazon, Apple, Facebook, also Google are going to be facing lawmakers today.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah. The four tech leaders appear before Congress together - OK, not exactly together because they're going to appear remotely because of the pandemic, which just underlines the overwhelming role that the Internet plays in daily life. These firms that dominate their industry face a big question - have they misused their power to hurt competitors and help themselves?

GREENE: OK. An important full disclosure here - we do want to note that all four companies are among NPR's financial supporters. Now we can turn to NPR's Alina Selyukh, who is covering this hearing. Hi, Alina.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: All right. So these companies have been growing a lot over the last two decades. No one is surprised by it. So why is Congress deciding to hold this hearing now?

SELYUKH: Right. Lawmakers are finally considering whether they need to take a more active role in policing these powerful platforms. As you point out, these companies have long been held in high regard as models of American scrappy ingenuity. But they stopped being scrappy startups a long time ago. And put together, they're now worth almost $5 trillion. For their entire existence, they faced very little regulation. But in recent years, critics have piled on accusations of anti-competitive behavior. The Justice Department and state attorneys general started investigations and so has the committee that's holding this hearing today. They've been investigating for over a year, and today is the last stop on that journey.

GREENE: OK. Well, if this is the last stop, what are we expecting to hear from lawmakers? What are they going to focus on?

SELYUKH: Largely competition is the goal to focus on in this hearing. The four companies are very different, of course, with lots of nuance. But, generally, critics have been saying how competing with at least three of them - Amazon, Apple and Google - is like playing against a team that also owns the stadium, hires the referees and writes the rules of the game.

GREENE: They basically do everything. But the companies are different, right? I mean, can you give us a sense of some of the key questions, like, for each of them?

SELYUKH: Sure. It's a bit of a dense list, but let me try to hit some of the bigger themes. For Amazon's Jeff Bezos, the world's richest person, this is actually his first appearance before Congress. But if the committee sticks to the topic, I'm expecting lots of questions about whether Amazon exploits data it collects from other sellers on the platform for its own benefit, back to this idea of Amazon both running the marketplace and selling on it. For Apple's Tim Cook, questions are likely to focus on the app store and whether Apple gives itself an unfair advantage in how it charges developers for every transaction there. For Google's Sundar Pichai, the big themes are Google's dominant search and digital advertising where the company controls almost a third of the market. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has been to the Hill a lot lately, so he'll probably get more questions about disinformation and political speech but also how the company buys or copies its competitors. All the companies are expected to push back, that they face a lot of competition and generally represent a big success story of American innovation.

INSKEEP: All right. Well, let's go with your metaphor that this year-long investigation was like a train trip and this was the last stop on the journey. Where does the train go next? What happens now after this?

SELYUKH: The final stop of this train, I suppose, is when the committee finishes and publishes its findings. I spoke with Gene Kimmelman, former Department of Justice antitrust official, now at consumer group Public Knowledge, and he sums up the question at the heart of this like this.

GENE KIMMELMAN: Beyond a simple antitrust case, what does the law need to look like to ensure that we have open and vibrant competition in a digital marketplace?

SELYUKH: So maybe it's a journey to reconsider existing laws, maybe write new ones. That, of course, the companies would fight tooth and nail.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Alina Selyukh, it's been nice being on this journey with you. Thanks, Alina.

SELYUKH: Thank you.

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GREENE: All right. We have to say, it got pretty tense on Capitol Hill already yesterday.

INSKEEP: Attorney General William Barr came to testify. Democrats had questions. Barr defended federal agents' use of force against peaceful protesters in Portland, Ore.

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WILLIAM BARR: What unfolds nightly around the courthouse cannot reasonably be called protest. It is, by any objective measure, an assault on the government of the United States.

INSKEEP: Democrats also accused Barr of politicizing the Justice Department to support friends of President Trump.

GREENE: OK. We have NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson with us. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: Well, let's start with these protests. What did lawmakers have to say about them to the attorney general?

JOHNSON: David, remember, these protests began after police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky. Democrats on the committee said the vast majority of these protesters are peaceful, even in Portland. They called it a place where moms and veterans have gathered. But the attorney general focused on attacks on the federal court building in Portland with fireworks and protesters barricading the door and setting fires. He says these aren't protesters; they're attackers. He says deputy U.S. marshals have been injured, they're tired and that he would be happy if state and local officials picked up the slack and did more to protect the courthouse so the feds could do less. Democrats showed the attorney general videos of a Navy veteran who went up to some of the law enforcement on the street and who got beaten and tear gassed. And Bill Barr said most people near the court were violent, and the tear gas might have been in the air already.

GREENE: All right. So in addition to questions about those protests, it sounds like Democrats were very blunt and basically saying that the attorney general has been rewarding the president's friends, punishing enemies. This is the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Jerrold Nadler.

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JERROLD NADLER: In your time at the department, you have aided and abetted the worst failings of the president.

GREENE: All right. So how did Barr respond to that?

JOHNSON: Well, Barr said the president has never asked him, directed him or pressured him to do anything in a criminal case. The attorney general says he acts independent of the White House and what he calls the mob of public opinion. A couple of lawmakers asked him if he could come up with an example of a time when he weighed in on a punishment for a defendant who was not a friend of the president, referring to the Roger Stone case here, of course. The attorney general responded this way.

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BARR: What enemies have I indicted? Who - could you point to one indictment that has been under the department that you feel is unmerited, that you feel violates the rule of law? One indictment.

JOHNSON: So, David, it got really hot in here, to borrow a phrase. The hearing went on that way for hours with the lawmakers interrupting Barr a lot and, by the end, Barr interrupting some of the Democratic members of Congress, too.

GREENE: Well, I mean, just a lot to talk about, including the presidential election, right, Carrie? I mean, we're about three months away. How did that come up in a hearing, you know, about the Justice Department?

JOHNSON: The election came up in two different ways. One, President Trump and Attorney General Barr have both raised questions about the security of mail-in ballots. Barr did that again. But most voting experts do not think that that will be a widespread problem. Second, Barr has ordered an investigation of the intelligence community and the FBI in 2016. He refused yesterday to say he would not release those findings before the election. So that's still possible out there.

GREENE: OK. NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

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GREENE: All right. As we said, the election is coming under a hundred days from now. And, Steve, you've actually been out doing what matters most in any election - that's listening to voters.

INSKEEP: Yeah. I grabbed a bunch of masks, got in the car and drove to a swing state that's closely contested - Ohio. Ashtabula County is in Northeast Ohio. The main city is also called Ashtabula and it's one of those classic Rust Belt industrial towns that you know so well, David, which voted for generations for Democrats, including President Obama. But then the county flipped to President Trump.

GREENE: Oh, interesting place to go then. So what do you feel like you discovered there?

INSKEEP: Well, on the surface, the kind of polarized political debate we've heard everywhere. Not many people are changing their opinions of the president at this point, but we also found a number of younger people in Ashtabula County who are trying to influence this fall's election.

GREENE: So how do they want to do that?

INSKEEP: Well, maybe you can't change voters' minds, but you can add voters, which is what Eli Kalil hopes to do. He is the Democratic county chairman, and he is 23.

ELI KALIL: I think there's that maybe 1% and probably even smaller than that that voted for Trump who won't vote for him this upcoming election. So, yeah, we need to find another - a different demographic of voters who, you know, maybe they're not always enthused. Maybe they don't get to the polls all the time. You know, we need to figure out how we get them to the polls because we think that's where our base is going to be.

INSKEEP: Trying to expand the number of younger, more diverse voters who show up and Kalil is hoping that they will include the likes of Wisdom Davis, his former high school classmate who's also 23 years old. She organized a protest this summer against police violence, and there was a voter registration table there.

WISDOM DAVIS: Because a lot of people just want change so much, but then they're like they just want it but they don't want to - they don't know how to take the steps.

INSKEEP: Wisdom Davis knows that voting is important. She voted last time, but she voted third party then. And I should note she is not committed to the Democrat Joe Biden yet this time.

GREENE: Well, I mean, that makes me want to ask you about 2016. I mean, you said this is a county that voted for generations for Democrats. How did Democrats feel like they lost the county in 2016?

INSKEEP: Well, they were a big union party, of course, and as unions, industrial unions, declined, the Democrats declined. Some local Democrats think the party got a little lazy, lost touch with voters. Trump captured voters' imagination, worked for voters, showed up in Ashtabula County and did very well in Ohio, which is older and whiter than the electorate as a whole. He seems to have that demographic advantage there, which means Ohio hasn't been talked about as much as other states. But polling shows it's really competitive right now.

GREENE: Well, and what is the Republican plan? How are they pushing back here?

INSKEEP: Well, it's not just Democrats that are hoping for younger voters to turn out because Republicans have a kind of youth movement going in public offices in the county. David Thomas is one of them. He's the county auditor at the age of 27, and he says he won his election as President Trump did, with an overwhelming vote in the county's rural areas.

DAVID THOMAS: Prior to 2016, essentially the votes were in the cities where our population centers were. You had to win them in order to win the county. Myself as an example, I lost all three of our cities but won outside of the cities in some of the suburban areas but mainly in some of our rural areas, too, that have grown not only in population but also just in voter participation.

INSKEEP: Thomas sees enthusiasm for the president still, although some voters are disappointed and, of course, the president invokes race in a way that's divisive. The bottom line is you got two men in their 70s running for president, and there are people in their 20s who could have something to do with who wins.

GREENE: Steve, thanks for bringing us these voices.

INSKEEP: Glad do it. Glad to talk with you, as always, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.