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Tech CEOs who testify in Washington 'can't win no matter what,' says ServiceNow CEO John Donahoe

The fate of big tech increasingly lies in Washington D.C., where lawmakers and regulators have signaled newfound willingness to bring antitrust action. One Silicon Valley chief executive said that doesn’t bode well for CEOs called to Capitol Hill.

“I have some empathy for what it's like for those that are testifying. You almost can't win no matter what you do,” says John Donahoe, the former eBay CEO (EBAY) and current chief executive of management software company ServiceNow (NOW).

“When you get in the spotlight, the glare of the spotlight, it becomes a little bit of a PR battle instead of a substantive battle,” he adds.

On Tuesday, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee held the first in a series of antitrust hearings about whether and how to address the concentration of market power in big tech.

“Given the growing tide of concentration and consolidation across our economy, it is vital that we investigate the current state of competition in digital markets,” says Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

In the first hearing, representatives from dueling trade groups testified on behalf of media publishers and the tech industry, making their respective cases for why social platforms are or aren’t harming digital news. More hearings are slated for the coming weeks and months.

The probe began a week after news broke that the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department have divided up oversight of Amazon (AMZN), Google (GOOGGOOGL), Apple (AAPL), and Facebook (FB), suggesting the agencies may soon launch antitrust investigations.

Donahoe made the comments to Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer in a conversation that aired on Yahoo Finance in an episode of “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.

Since 2017, Donahoe has run ServiceNow, a management software company that saw 36 percent year-over-year revenue growth in 2018, and just announced deals with the likes of Google and Deloitte. He worked for Bain & Company for 20 years, starting as an associate consultant and rising to become the firm's president and CEO in 1999. Then he leapt to eBay, where he served as president and CEO from 2008 to 2015.

Service Now CEO John Donahoe appears on Influencers with Andy Serwer.

‘When you get into that kind of Washington glare, then it’s a little harder’

“There's a lot of awareness and desire to be responsible citizens,” Donahoe says of fellow tech CEOs. “But when you get into that kind of Washington glare, then it's a little harder.”

Last April, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before the Senate commerce and judiciary committees to discuss data privacy after the blockbuster revelation that his company had shared user information with the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. He apologized for the scandal and the spread of misinformation on his platform.

Months later, in December, Google CEO Sundar Pichai spoke to the House Judiciary Committee about topics ranging from data privacy to the company’s business plans in China to potential political bias in its search results.

For his part, Donahoe said it’s time for tech companies to acknowledge and address the problems caused by some of their products.

“The technology sector has to face up to what are some of the second order consequences,” he says. “Engage privacy issues, engage as constructive citizens, not just in the technology world, but as members of society.”

Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer.

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