WASHINGTON: Google and Facebook took the sharpest jabs for alleged abuse of their market power from Democrats and Republicans on Wednesday (Jul 29), in a much-anticipated congressional hearing with four of America's most prominent tech CEOs in the hot seat.
Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Google's Sundar Pichai and Apple's Tim Cook – whose companies have a combined market value of about US$5 trillion – parried a range of accusations from lawmakers that they crippled smaller rivals in the quest for market share, via a video conference hearing.
Though it was Bezos’ first congressional testimony, he appeared the least fazed. Cook drew fewer barbed questions than Bezos and handled them efficiently. Zuckerberg took the most damage, stumbling at times when confronted with internal emails.
Pichai, CEO of both Alphabet and Google, took the most heat from conservatives on the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee's antitrust panel and looked the worse for it, as he repeatedly told lawmakers he would be happy to look in to various situations and get back to them.
Unfortunately, the Big Tech hearing was decidedly low-tech. Bezos escaped questioning for about an hour in what may have been a tech issue, and was caught on screen reaching for what appeared to be a snack.
Poor audio quality, flat-screen televisions switching off, and chief executives appearing together as thumbnails on a large screen frustrated viewers and led to mockery of the virtual set-up on Twitter.
Lawmakers descended into shouting at points, with a pandemic twist. One lawmaker shouted: "Put your mask on!"
Representative David Cicilline, a Democrat and chair of the antitrust subcommittee, set the tone when he began by accusing Google of theft.
"Why does Google steal content from honest businesses?" he asked.
Cicilline alleged Google stole reviews from Yelp and said Google threatened to delist the company from search results if it objected.
Pichai responded mildly that he would want to know the specifics of the accusation. "We conduct ourselves to the highest standards," he added, disagreeing with the characterisation that Google steals content to win users.
Facebook's Zuckerberg took a series of questions about the company's purchase of Instagram in 2012, and whether it was acquired because it was a threat.
Zuckerberg responded that the deal had been reviewed by the Federal Trade Commission and that Instagram at the time was a tiny photo-sharing app rather than a social-media phenomenon. "People didn't think of them competing with us in that space," he said.
The hearing marked the first time the four CEOs have appeared together before lawmakers.
In one of the more notable exchanges, Representative Pramila Jayapal pushed Zuckerberg on whether Facebook had ever copied its competitors.
"We've certainly adapted features that others have led in," he said.
"How many companies did Facebook end up copying?" she asked. "Is it less than five? Less than 50?"
"Congresswoman, I don't know," Zuckerberg said.
The hearing was the first time the four CEOs have appeared together before lawmakers.
Jayapal pressed Amazon's Bezos on whether the company used data from third-party sellers in making sales decisions. An Amazon executive previously had denied the practice under oath and was contradicted by a news report.
Bezos answered cautiously that the company had a policy against such actions. "If we found that somebody violated it, we would take action against them," he said.
On the Republican side, Representative Jim Jordan accused the companies of taking a long list of actions that he said showed they try to hamper conservatives from reaching their supporters.
"Big Tech is out to get conservatives," he said. The companies have denied allegations of political censorship.
Jordan's allegations come after President Donald Trump, who has clashed with several of the biggest tech companies, on Wednesday threatened to take action against them with executive orders.
Jordan also pressed Pichai on whether Google would help former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, win in November.
"We support both campaigns. We approach our work in a nonpartisan fashion," Pichai responded.
Republican Representative Matt Gaetz pressed Facebook's Zuckerberg on whether content moderators disadvantaged conservative content.
Zuckerberg said they were trained to be neutral. "We aim to be a platform for all ideas," he said. "I certainly don't want our platform to be run in such a way to have a ... bias."
Apple's Cook rejected the notion there is nothing to stop his company from raising the commissions it charges in the App Store.
"I disagree strongly with that," he said. "The competition for developers – they can write their apps for Android or Windows or Xbox or PlayStation. We have fierce competition at the developer side and the customer side, which is essentially so competitive I would describe it as a street fight."
In his opening remarks, Zuckerberg told lawmakers that China is building its "own version of the Internet focused on very different ideas, and they are exporting their vision to other countries".
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Cook pointed out that the fiercely competitive smartphone market includes China's Huawei Technologies, which has been a focus of considerable US national security concern.
A detailed report with antitrust allegations against the four tech platforms and recommendations on how to tame their market power could be released by late summer or early fall by the committee, senior committee aides said.