Big Tech Executives Are Grilled During Congressional Hearing

At a congressional hearing this week, the chief executives of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google endured frustration and hostile criticism from bipartisan lawmakers. House Antitrust Subcommittee chair David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) started by saying that, “Our founders would not bow before a king. Nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy,” referring to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai. The companies are collectively worth almost $5 trillion.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, during the five-hour videoconference, “lawmakers whipsawed between topics” and frequently interrupted witnesses “before they finished their responses.” The chief executives — who unsuccessfully lobbied to testify jointly — defended their companies against charges of anticompetition tactics to dominate small companies and bully independent sellers.

Top Republican member of the subcommittee, Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), wasn’t eager to support changes in the competition laws, however, noting that, “in America you should be rewarded for success.” Congressman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) brought up the Republican’s grievance that, “Big Tech is out to get conservatives.”

When congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) asked Bezos if “Amazon employees violated an internal policy against accessing data from independent sellers,” Bezos admitted that he couldn’t guarantee the policy has never been violated, but added that, “Amazon wants third-party sellers to succeed.” He was then surprised by the playback of recording of an Amazon seller who said her business was crushed “after an action by Amazon.”

House Judiciary Committee chair Jerrold Nadler (D-New York) quoted Zuckerberg stating in a 2012 document that “Instagram can hurt us meaningfully” as proof that it was an “anticompetitive acquisition that antitrust laws were designed to prevent.” Zuckerberg countered that the FTC had all those documents when it let the deal go through. He also defended “Facebook’s efforts to regulate false information.”

Pichai was also accused of “abusing [Google’s] position as a web gateway,” but he “pointed to competition in online search, such as searches for specific items on travel or retail websites.” Republicans criticized Google for “abandoning some work with the Pentagon” and its work in China. Apple, which has a large presence in China, got few questions on this topic.

The New York Times reports that this was “the first congressional hearing for some time where Democrats and Republicans acted as if they had a common foe, though for different reasons.” Democratic lawmakers focused on tactics including acquisitions and data hoards for killing off rivals, while Republicans were concerned with “whether the platforms had muzzled conservative viewpoints and were unpatriotic.”

The chief executives were “forced to strike a more humble chord … [presenting] themselves as participants in enormously competitive and fast-changing digital marketplaces.” At the same time, they “evaded questions about the decisions that turned their companies into giants.”

While the hearing was “ripe with theater, any impact will be limited by antitrust laws that were created a century ago and that are imperfect for corralling Internet firms.” “Ultimately, Congress doesn’t have the power to break up the companies,” says NYT. Still, regulators from the European Union to Turkey are attempting to limit the power of Big Tech as “their stumbles in misinformation, privacy, election interference and labor issues have increasingly raised hackles.”

Related:
The Winners and Losers From the Big Tech Antitrust Hearing, Recode, 7/30/20
Republicans and Democrats Find a Point of Agreement: Big Tech Is Too Powerful, The Wall Street Journal, 7/30/20
‘This Is a New Phase’: Europe Shifts Tactics to Limit Tech’s Power, The New York Times, 7/30/20
Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google Grilled on Capitol Hill Over Their Market Power, The Washington Post, 7/29/20
Jeff Bezos’s Antitrust Grilling Was a Reminder of Amazon’s Power Over Its Sellers, Recode, 7/29/20
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos ‘Can’t Guarantee’ Policy Against Using Seller Specific Data Hasn’t Been Violated, VentureBeat, 7/29/20
Apple Halved App Store Fee to Get Amazon Prime Video on Devices, Bloomberg, 7/29/20
Nadler: Journalism Industry ‘Gravely Threatened’ by Google, Facebook, The Hill, 7/29/20
Google’s Sundar Pichai Grilled Over ‘Destroying Anonymity on the Internet’, TechCrunch, 7/29/20