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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

When CEOs testify before Congress, as tech's leaders will Wednesday, they have one job: to demonstrate their firms are good corporate citizens by enduring questioning without offending or putting their feet in their mouths.

The big picture: In recent history, CEOs have failed in one of two ways — making self-serving statements that are transparently untrue, or letting their contempt for the machinery of democracy show.

  • Tobacco CEOs famously did the former in 1994.
  • Bill Gates arguably did the latter when Microsoft was under antitrust threat in 1998.

What to watch: Of the four CEOs testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, Mark Zuckerberg already passed this test with flying colors two years ago.

  • His retort to Sen. Orrin Hatch's question about how Facebook profits without charging users —"Senator, we sell ads" — was disarmingly forthright.

Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai have also testified before.

  • They're both consummate technocrats who are unlikely to flinch, weird out or crack under pressure.

Jeff Bezos is the wild card. It's his first time before Congress, and for most of the 25 years he's run Amazon he has avoided confronting hostile questions in public.

  • He's also the richest person in the world, by most accountings, and that could give him a sense of invulnerability. (Although it wasn't enough to protect him from having his intimate photos stolen.)

In opening statements posted Tuesday, all four executives plan to offer different versions of a "we're good for America" argument.

  • Zuckerberg: “Facebook is a proudly American company. We believe in values — democracy, competition, inclusion and free expression — that the American economy was built on. Many other tech companies share these values, but there’s no guarantee our values will win out. For example, China is building its own version of the internet focused on very different ideas, and they are exporting their vision to other countries."
  • Cook: "Apple is a uniquely American company whose success is only possible in this country."
  • Bezos: "The trust customers put in us every day has allowed Amazon to create more jobs in the United States over the past decade than any other company."
  • Pichai: "Our work would not be possible without the long tradition of American innovation, and we’re proud to contribute to its future... Our teams of engineers are helping America solidify its position as the global leader in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, and quantum computing."

Yes, but: The high drama in the collision between lawmakers and tech leaders won't play out under the hot lights of a Capitol chamber but in the cool squares of a videoconference, thanks to pandemic-era social distancing.

  • That has left some critics of the tech companies' practices fretting that the CEOs will get off easy.
  • It will also underscore how thoroughly every sector of society, including government, now depends on their screens and services.
  • Of note: The videoconferencing provider Congress uses is Cisco Webex.

What's next: The show begins at noon EST.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Oct 30, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Technical glitch in Facebook's ad tools creates political firestorm

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: SOPA Images / Contributor

Facebook said late Thursday that a mix of "technical problems" and confusion among advertisers around its new political ad ban rules caused issues affecting ad campaigns of both parties.

Why it matters: A report out Thursday morning suggested the ad tools were causing campaign ads, even those that adhered to Facebook's new rules, to be paused. Very quickly, political campaigners began asserting the tech giant was enforcing policies in a way that was biased against their campaigns.

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Winter view from Charlotte as winter storm Izzy creates dangerous conditions in Charlotte, N.C. on Jan. 16. Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A major winter storm was lashing much of the East Coast on Sunday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The big picture: Heavy snow and ice accumulations are "likely to produce hazardous travel," downed trees and more power outages from the Mid-South to the Northeast, per the National Weather Service. Some parts of the U.S. can expect to see up to a foot of snow through Monday.

Updated 4 hours ago - Science

Volcanic eruption in Tonga caused "significant" damage

This satellite image of the eruption on Jan. 15 taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency and released by National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT). Photo: NICT via AP

Significant damage has been reported in Tonga following an undersea volcanic eruption on Saturday, which covered the Pacific nation in ash and cut off communication lines.

Driving the news: The eruption triggered tsunami warnings across Tonga's islands and in other regions, including the West Coast of the U.S. and New Zealand.