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Big Tech spins its way through the halls of power

by on30 July 2020

As we predicted, it was a waste of time

The four big tech leaders spun their way through an antitrust panel in which they were so safe they could practically admit antitrust behaviour and get away with it.

It is a bit tricky when a chairman of the US House of Representatives antitrust panel holding the hearing. David Cicilline.  said afterwards that the four CEOs had acknowledged concerns about their behaviour and yet no one seemed to notice among the press observers.

Facebook Inc’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai and Apple’s Tim Cook spun and weaved through accusations that they crippled smaller rivals in their quest for market share.

It was Bezos’ first congressional testimony, but he was the least fazed and at one point had a snack. Cook drew fewer barbed questions than Bezos but his PR rehearsals paid off. Zuckerberg suffered the most damage, stumbling at times when confronted with internal emails.

Pichai took the most heat from conservatives on the panel and he repeatedly told lawmakers he would be happy to look into various situations and get back to them.

The event suffered from 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.

Cicilline had a crack at Google claiming it stole content from honest businesses. It turned out he was complaining about how 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, Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat, 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 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.

Republican  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. As you would expect.

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

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. 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.”

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.

But don’t hold your breath.


Last modified on 30 July 2020
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