The chief executives of Google LLC, Amazon.com Inc., Apple Inc. and Facebook Inc. took a grilling from Congress today over antitrust issues, with each boss facing some difficult questions on their respective businesses.
Those questions, and the answers, led David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat and chair of the House judiciary committee’s antitrust subcommittee, to issue some stern closing remarks. “These companies, as they exist today, have monopoly power,” he said, “Some need to be broken up, all need to be properly regulated and held accountable. This must end.”
However, there was widespread skepticism of any near-term change, given the uncertainty of the upcoming election and the largely positive attitude most people still seem to have about most big tech companies whose services they keep using. As some veteran Washington watchers noted, the proceedings were mostly theater. And since congressional representatives had only five minutes apiece to ask questions of each CEO, the answers were routinely cut off well before the CEOs could finish.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, arguably came out of the hearing looking the worst. He was criticized by the media for his “nonanswers” when asked difficult questions. When he was asked if Amazon exploited third-party seller data to develop its own products, he came up short.
“Mr. Bezos, does Amazon ever access and use seller data when making business decisions?” asked Rep. Pramila Jayapal. That’s exactly what the company was accused of in April, after a Wall Street Journal investigation into the company’s practices.
“I can’t guarantee you that that policy has never been violated,” he answered. “We continue to look into that very carefully. I’m not yet satisfied that we’ve gotten to the bottom of it, and we’re going to keep looking at it. It’s not as easy to do as you would think because some of the sources in the article are anonymous.” It didn’t help that at times he suffered from audio and video issues on his live stream, although some media believed the technical problems might have saved him.
Bezos was grilled by Rep. Lucy McBath regarding third-party sellers who have claimed to be “systematically blocked” by the company. She cited complaints from people who said that Amazon did this without giving them any reason.
“What do you have to say to the small businesses that are talking to Congress because you simply aren’t listening to them?” she asked, to which Bezos replied, “I do not think that’s systematically what’s going on. Third-party sellers in aggregate are doing extremely well on Amazon.”
Cicilline then weighed in on the issue, saying he’d heard “heartbreaking” stories of how sellers had been taken down. One of those sellers had accused Amazon of poaching his products, comparing the company to a drug dealer. “Sir, I have great respect for you as a committee, but I completely disagree with that characterization,” answered Bezos.
That was Bezos’ first time being answering questions in front of Congress, but it wasn’t the same for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (pictured), who looked more at home when being grilled. Cicilline asked Zuckerberg if Facebook wasn’t so big that it couldn’t properly deal with the flow of misinformation on the platform. Zuckerberg’s answer was that Facebook had a “good track” of battling misinformation.
Cicilline went on, saying that Facebook profited from such content, so isn’t there a motive to keep it on the platform? “It brings the most likes or it brings the most activity, which of course brings a great profit,” said Cicilline. “The more engagement you create, the more money you make on advertising.”
“We rank what we show in our feed based on what is going to be the most meaningful to people and is going to create long-term satisfaction, not what’s just going to get clicks or engagement,” Zuckerberg answered, adding that it is a “misrepresentation” that Facebook is only interested in seeing the greatest number of clicks.
He may have handled those questions well, but when he was asked about newly recovered emails he sent in 2012 that show that he saw Instagram as a threat, he stumbled somewhat. “The businesses are nascent, but the networks are established, the brands are already meaningful and if they grow to a large scale they could be very disruptive to us,” Zuckerberg wrote in one of those emails.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler called the emails “disturbing,” adding that Facebook had used its monopoly power to take out its opposition. “Facebook saw Instagram as a threat that could potentially siphon business away from Facebook,” Nadler said. “So instead of competing with it, Facebook bought it,” he said. “This is exactly the type of acquisition the antitrust laws were designed to prevent.”
“I’ve always been clear that we viewed Instagram both as a competitor and as a complement to our services,” Zuckerberg answered, adding that the acquisition was approved by the Federal Trade Commission. “Congressman, I think the FTC had all these documents and reviewed this and unanimously voted at the time not to challenge the acquisition,” Zuckerberg continued. “I think it looks obvious Instagram would have reached the scale it has today, but at the time it was far from obvious.”
Google’s Sundar Pichai was asked a series of questions, mostly relating to the company’s ad policies, its work with the military and privacy issues. “Why does Google steal content from honest businesses?” asked Cicilline. He stated a case in which an entrepreneur accused Google of taking his content to develop its own business.
“Mr. Chairman, with respect, I disagree with that characterization,” answered Pichai. “Just last week, I met with many small businesses. In fact, today, we support 1.4 million small businesses. Supporting over $385 billion in economic activity. We see many businesses thrive, particularly even during the pandemic.”
Rep. Val Demings talked about Google 86% search engine market share, perhaps the biggest, alleged monopoly discussed during the hearing. She accused Google of buying up competitors to increase that market share, and by doing that having an immense amount of user data at its disposal.
“I am concerned that Google’s bait and switch with DoubleClick is part of a broader pattern where Google buys up companies for the purposes of surveilling Americans,” she said. “And because of Google’s dominance, users have no choice but to surrender.”
“I reviewed at a high level all the important decisions we make,” answered Pichai, adding that Google “deeply cares about the privacy and security of our users.” He went on, saying that Google offers various privacy controls for users. “We remind users to go do a privacy check-up. One billion users have done so,” he said.
Demings didn’t stop there, stating that more data means more money, to which Pichai returned an answer about the data helping Google to give the user a more personalized experience.
The smallest number of questions were in the direction of Apple CEO Tim Cook. He was asked about his company’s decision to remove the parental control apps from its App Store, not long after it had introduced its own Screen Time feature. After that, third-party developers saw their own solutions rejected. This not only hurt developers, said Rep. Lucy McBath, but parents had also complained.
Cook said that apps that used Mobile Device Management put their data at risk, which is why some apps were removed. “These apps were using an enterprise technology that provided them access to kids’ highly sensitive personal data,” he said. “We do not think it is OK for any apps to help data companies track or optimize advertising of kids.”
Photo: House Judiciary/Flickr
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