So the Big Tech Hearing Finally Happened…

Here’s what went down

In an historical congressional hearing rival only to Microsoft’s antitrust hearing in 1998, four major tech CEOs came head to head with both Republicans and Democrats over claims that they are “too powerful”.

In a stellar line-up, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple, and Sundar Pichai of Google/Alphabet were accused of turning the USA’s tech market into an oligopoly. For the last year, the subcommittee has been gathering evidence about how each of the four companies is holding monopoly power in the States. 1.3 million documents and hundreds of hours of interviews later, on Wednesday 29th June 2020, the four tech giants defended their business practices before a congressional subcommittee.

David Cicilline, chairman of the antitrust subcommittee, accused each company of being too dominating in their respective fields and stifling competition, boldly stating: “Our founders would not bow before a king, nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy”. 

In a statement last week, the Rhode Island Democrat said, “Since last June, the Subcommittee has been investigating the dominance of a small number of digital platforms and the adequacy of existing antitrust laws and enforcement,” adding, “Given the central role these corporations play in the lives of the American people, it is critical that their CEOs are forthcoming. As we have said from the start, their testimony is essential for us to complete this investigation.”

The main issue at hand is that each of the four companies has avoided liability under current antitrust laws because those competition rules were never crafted with the tech industry’s behaviors in mind. According to the BBC, “Critics say that these companies hurt consumers in a more subtle way, killing off smaller companies and strangling other businesses. The charge is that they are in fact damaging the economy”. 

Each of the four companies was asked to pledge against forced labor in their lines of production. 

Google and Facebook were accused by Republicans of anti-conservative bias. Addressing the committee, representative Jim Jordan claimed that “big tech is out to get conservatives”. 

Facebook was wrongly accused of censoring Donald Trump Jr, which he politely rejected, telling Jim Sensenbrenner that it was in fact Twitter who suspended the President’s son for sharing fake news. Although, he did state that any posts containing false medical claims relating to coronavirus would be filtered out due to their potential to cause harm. Zuckerberg was also questioned on election interference and hate speech, to which he responded, ““We’re very focused on fighting against election interference and we’re also very focused on fighting against hate speech”. 

When asked if they didn’t care about the impact a boycott of 1,100 advertisers would have on the company, in relation to the #StopHateForProfit boycott, Zuckerberg said, ““No, congresswoman, of course we care,” adding, “But we’re also not going to set our content policies because of advertisers. I think that would be the wrong thing for us to do. We’ve cared about issues like fighting hate speech for a long time.”

Pinchai was asked by representative Matt Gaets to pledge that Google will not adopt “the bigoted anti-police policy” of ending tech contracts with law enforcement agencies. Pinchai responded, assuring the court that Google has “committed to working with law enforcement in a way that is consistent with law and due processes in the US”.

Google was also accused, by a multitude of small businesses, that Google “took over their content and listings on their own pages”. It was also noted that Google had been cross-posting Yelp reviews to its own pages and, when asked to stop, threatened to remove Yelp from its search listings. Cicilline called this behavior “economically catastrophic”.

Facebook was called out for allegedly buying Instagram for fear of it being too competitive which was called by Jerry Nadler, “exactly the type of anticompetitive acquisition the antitrust laws were designed to prevent”. Proof of the attempt to neutralize competition was apparent in a number of internal documents.  

Amazon was asked by representative Pramila Jayapal about a Wall Street Journal report that Amazon had mined third-party sellers’ data to develop and launch its own competing products, reports The Verge. Despite voicing his pride for what Amazon had “done for third-party sellers” Bezos did not confirm nor deny this statement, claiming only that this report was under investigation. He was also accused of blocking third-party sellers from selling certain products, to which he claimed was not a systemic issue. 

In line with these claims, Cicilline asked Bezos: “Isn’t it an inherent conflict of interest for Amazon to produce and sell products that compete directly with third-party sellers, particularly when you, Amazon, set the rules of the game?” to which he responded, “The consumer is the one making the decisions”.

Apple CEO, Tim Cook, was questioned about the App Store’s rules. “The rules are made up as you go and subject to change – and Apple expects developers to go along with the changes or leave the App Store,” Representative Hank Johnson stated, adding, “That’s an enormous amount of power”. 

Nadler also accused Cook of “pandemic profiteering” as ClassPass and AirBnb were allegedly hit with commissions following their sales of digital experiences. Cook said 84% of apps are not charged commissions, adding that commissions have not been increased since 2008. He also claimed that “Apple would never engage in that” and assured the committee that Apple is working with the developers mentioned to resolve any confusion. 

 

In a closing statement, after five and a half hours, Cicilline rounded things up: “This hearing has made one fact clear to me: these companies as they exist today have monopoly power. Some need to be broken up, all need to be properly regulated and held accountable,” he said. “We need to ensure the antitrust laws first written more than a century ago work in the digital age”.

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