Investors will get a rare up close and personal look at the CEOs of America's largest and most powerful tech companies on Wednesday as the chiefs of Apple (AAPL) - Get Apple Inc. (AAPL) Report, Facebook (FB) - Get Facebook, Inc. Class A Report, Alphabet (GOOGL) - Get Alphabet Inc. Class A Report and Amazon (AMZN) - Get Amazon.com, Inc. Report are all scheduled to testify before Congress in a hearing ostensibly focused on antitrust issues.
But if history is any guide, the questioning is almost guaranteed to veer into other areas as well.
"Whenever you put high-profile people in front of Congress on television, you're creating a circus-like atmosphere," said Doug Gansler, head of Cadwalader’s state AG practice and former attorney general of Maryland. "[The hearing] is purportedly about antitrust, but you can bet high dollars they'll get into issues like election interference or fake news."
The hearing, which is being called by the House Judiciary Committee, was initially scheduled for Monday but was postponed in order to avoid a conflict with a memorial service for the late Rep. John Lewis. It'll be a rare convergence of major tech CEOs in a single event. Apple's Tim Cook, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon's Jeff Bezos and Google's Sundar Pichai are all slated to appear. And it'll also be the first ever appearance by Bezos at a congressional hearing.
The fact that all four CEOs will be sharing the spotlight with each other could mean there's minimal extended grilling of each individual corporate leader. The executives are also like to arrive highly coached and practiced in antitrust-related talking points.
"These are also four very different companies, so the antitrust implications are also very different," Gansler added. "It's going to be hard for [lawmakers] to have a cohesive message from an investigatory standpoint."
The House Judiciary Committee plans to release a report on the antitrust allegations against the four tech firms by late summer or early fall. That report is expected to propose legislative changes that would help bring antitrust law up to date.
In the meantime, a number of antitrust investigations of Alphabet, Facebook, Apple and Amazon appear to be moving forward. Various entities, including the FTC, the DOJ, and a consortium of state attorneys general, are running those investigations.
In May, the Wall Street Journal reported that the DOJ and State AGs are likely to file antitrust charges against Alphabet in the coming months, with the complaint relating to its dominant position in online advertising.
Possible charges for the other three tech firms haven't been reported, at least not in the U.S., but they remain in the sights of regulators and lawmakers.
"Apple remains in the cross-hairs around its App Store (30% fee) dominance both in the US and especially in the EU, with a more intense investigation of its business practices in focus later this week as Cook appears in front of the committee," wrote Wedbush analyst Dan Ives in a note on Monday.
Amazon's Jeff Bezos, newer to the Capitol Hill limelight, may also face pointed questions into Amazon's dominance of e-commerce and its private-label products in particular. Amazon is reportedly facing antitrust charges in the EU for allegedly using seller data to unfairly compete against those sellers.
Meanwhile, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg could face grievances from both sides of the aisle, given continuing concerns over the company's handling of problematic or false content and its record on civil rights. Bloomberg reported on Monday that Zuckerberg plans to argue that Facebook is an American "success story" and necessary to compete against China. Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg may be deposed by the FTC to give sworn legal testimony as part of a probe into Facebook's business practices, the WSJ reported this month.
Apart from the House hearing, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Alphabet each plan to release their latest earnings reports on Thursday, July 30.