The chief executives of four American tech giants faced accusations of wielding their companies’ size to unfairly squash competition on Wednesday, as they sat for an unprecedented grilling from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple’s Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai of Google’s parent company Alphabet were told their companies had “too much power”.
The executives, by contrast, planned to use the hearing to paint their companies — which have a combined market value of $5tn — as “uniquely American” success stories, directly creating more than 1m jobs in the country and enabling the prosperity of small and medium-sized businesses.
With the executives on video links to the House judiciary committee’s antitrust subcommittee, the high-stakes event is the first time all four chief executives have been involved in the same hearing. For Mr Bezos, it is the first time he has personally addressed Congress, some 26 years after founding his company.
“It feels like just yesterday I was driving the packages to the post office myself, dreaming that one day, we might afford a forklift,” Mr Bezos told lawmakers.
“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,” he added.
The subcommittee, led by Democratic congressman David Cicilline, has for the past year been investigating an assortment of complaints about “Big Tech”, alongside similar probes from other agencies, including the US Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission, as well as the European Commission.
In his opening remarks, Mr Cicilline said the companies were too powerful and were squelching competition, creativity, and innovation.
“Many of the practices used by these companies have harmful economic effects. They discourage entrepreneurship, destroy jobs, hike costs, and degrade quality,” he said. “Simply put: They have too much power.”
The committee does not have the authority to take any enforcement action against the companies. But it will seek to use its final report, due later this year, to inform possible changes to antitrust laws.
President Donald Trump has threatened executive orders to curb the companies’ power. In a tweet shortly before the hearing, he said: “If Congress doesn’t bring fairness to Big Tech, which they should have done years ago, I will do it myself.”
While concern over the power of Big Tech is considered a bipartisan issue, the two US political parties are at odds on the nature of the threat. Republicans at Wednesday’s hearing are expected to use the opportunity to rail against what they claim to be an anticonservative bias on the platforms.
“I’ll just cut to the chase, Big Tech’s out to get conservatives,” said Republican Jim Jordan, accusing the companies of censoring rightwing views.
Free speech arguments aside, the accusations across all of the investigations are broadly the same. Amazon, as the dominant ecommerce retailer, and Apple, as custodian of its highly lucrative App Store, are said to be onerous gatekeepers of their platforms — charging fees while favouring their own products in their respective marketplaces, utilising insights from data not available to outsiders.
Facebook and Google’s parent Alphabet are said to be using their dominant positions in social media and search to buy up smaller rivals in order to cement their position, as well as using the enormous reach of those networks to push consumers towards their own products, such as shopping services.
Facebook’s Mr Zuckerberg will argue that limiting the actions of US tech giants would open the door to Chinese competitors.
“Many other tech companies share these values, but there’s no guarantee our values will win out,” Mr Zuckerberg will say, according to prepared testimony. “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.”