Too powerful? US Congress grills tech giants’ CEOs over behaviour

Antitrust panel quizzes heads of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple over their alleged moves to gain more market share.

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Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Google owner Alphabet's Sundar Pichai and Apple's Tim Cook - whose companies have a combined market value of about $5 trillion - came under fire from Democrats and Republicans [File/Reuters]

Google and Facebook took particularly sharp jabs for alleged abuse of their market power from Democrats and Republicans in a much-anticipated congressional hearing that put four of the most prominent tech CEOs in the United States in the hot seat.

The chairman of the US House of Representatives antitrust panel holding the hearing on Wednesday said afterwards the four CEOs had acknowledged behaviour which had caused concern.

“What we heard from witnesses at the hearing confirmed the evidence that we have collected over the last year,” Representative David Cicilline, a Democrat, told the Reuters news agency.

Facebook Inc’s Mark Zuckerberg, Inc’s Jeff Bezos, Google owner Alphabet Inc’s Sundar Pichai and Apple Inc’s Tim Cook – whose companies have a combined market value of about $5 trillion – parried a range of accusations that they crippled smaller rivals in their quest for market share.

The hearing via video conference was the first time the four CEOs have appeared together before legislators.

Though it was Bezos’s first congressional testimony, he appeared the least fazed. Cook drew fewer barbed questions than Bezos and handled them well. Zuckerberg suffered 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 panel and looked the worse for it, as he repeatedly told lawmakers he would be happy to look into various situations and get back to them.

The Big Tech hearing triggered scorn from viewers over its own tech issues. 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, flat-screen televisions switching off, and chief executives appearing together as thumbnails on a large screen led to mockery of the virtual set-up on Twitter.

Legislators descended into shouting at each other at points, with a pandemic twist. One yelled: “Put your mask on!”

Theft, copying, content moderation

Democrat Cicilline set the tone for the hearing when he began by accusing Google of theft. “Why does Google steal content from honest businesses?” he asked. He alleged Google stole reviews from Yelp Inc and threatened to delist Yelp 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.

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, as he dubbed it in an email obtained by the committee.

Zuckerberg responded that Instagram at the time was a tiny photo-sharing app rather than a social media phenomenon.

In one of the more notable exchanges, Democrat 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.

Jayapal pressed Bezos on whether Amazon used data from third-party sellers in making sales decisions. A company executive had previously 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.

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Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai was pressed on whether Google would help former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, win in November’s election [Graeme Jennings/Pool via Reuters]

On the Republican side, Representative Jim Jordan accused the companies of hampering conservatives from reaching their supporters. Jordan 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.

Representative Matt Gaetz asked Zuckerberg whether content moderators disadvantaged conservative content. He said they were trained to be neutral.

‘Street fight’

Cook rejected the notion there is nothing to stop Apple 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.”

Meanwhile, Arizona is leading a multi-state investigation into whether Apple Inc’s deliberate slowing of older iPhones violated deceptive trade practice laws, documents reviewed by Reuters on Wednesday showed.

Apple came under fire in 2017 when Primate Labs, the maker of software for measuring a phone’s processor speeds, revealed that some iPhones became slower as they aged.

In the continuing probe since at least October 2018, investigators have asked Apple for data about “unexpected shut down s” of iPhones and the company’s throttling, or slowing down, of the devices through power management software, documents Reuters obtained from Texas through a public records request showed.

Earlier this year, Apple agreed to pay up to $500m to settle a proposed class-action lawsuit related to the battery issues.

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 autumn by the committee, senior committee aides said.

Source: Reuters