‘It takes a lot to get Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg in the same room. It’s happening today at an anti-trust hearing happening in Congress. Officially, the hearing is called: Online Platforms and Market Power, Part 6: Examining the Dominance of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. If past hearings are any indicator, however, we can expect a sweeping range of questions ranging from poignant probes to pointless grandstanding on both sides of the chamber.
Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Google are massive companies and both political parties have made cases to limit their reach and overall market influence. This is the first time Jeff Bezos will appear in front of Congress.
The hearing will include hours of testimony, some of which will use many words to say very little. So, settle in and watch above or read on for some of the high points from the event.
Why is this happening?
The panel has been conducting a year-long investigation regarding the way in which big tech companies operate. Each individual company has its own specific issues to address when it comes to competition and transparency. Apple, for instance, will likely answer for its policy, which takes 30 percent of the revenue from app sales while keeping developers locked onto its platform if they want to access the massive installation base of iPhone users. Google will face questions about its Android operating system, as well as its ever-changing system for presenting search results to customers making inquiries on its site. This is already familiar territory for Facebook—Mark Zuckerberg has made multiple appearances in front of Congress to answer queries on everything from its role as a platform versus as a publisher and perceived political bias in its content moderation. For Amazon, competition will be the primary topic of conversation as the online retail giant grows rapidly, especially during the pandemic.
Chairman Mr. Cicilline doesn’t hesitate to call out how each company stands to benefit from the global effects of COVID-19. He nicely sums up the complaints about these large companies and their ability to force out smaller players and guide innovation efforts. He compares the companies to small governments in and of themselves. The statement clearly tries to lay out high stakes.
Ranking member Mr. Sensenbrenner introduces the idea that the current anti-competition laws may not be equipped to handle the sheer size of the tech companies. He’s the first to use the phrase “public square” which you should expect to hear a lot during this hearing. He also directly suggests that the companies may be “silencing conservative voices,” which will also likely come up a lot.
Rep, Nadler cuts right to the main point and compares big tech platforms to infrastructure. We’re calling back to the early days of the U.S. during the development of the railroads.
Mr. Jordan uses his statement to list examples of times he believes tech has tried to “silence conservatives.” Many examples come from Twitter, which isn’t at the hearing.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos gets the first opportunity to speak (you can read his prepared comments here). He starts off with biographical information about his parents. He says that 80 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Amazon. He points out that Amazon operates as a platform that has invited others to come and sell stuff on the technology Amazon built.
Google’s Sundar Pichai has the best-looking webcam and office setup. You can read his prepared statement here. He mentions that there are 140 million students and teachers using G Suite during the pandemic. He injects some comments about his upbringing as well. Presumably they have all seen the comments about Zuck’s “robotic” demeanor during past hearings and are trying to avoid it. Google says it’s spending $26 billion in research and development every year. That’s a 10x growth in a decade. He mentions how Android doesn’t require licensing fees, which is clearly aimed at Apple.
Apple’s Tim Cook’s prepared statement is available here. He starts with a tribute to the late John Lewis. Cook specifically names Huawei as one of its competitors along with LG and Samsung. He points out that Apple doesn’t have a dominating share in any segment in which is participates. He’s touting the benefits of a closed App Store knowing that it will be a frequent topic of questioning. “We want to get every app we can on the App Store.” he says it facilitated $138 billion in commerce last year alone.
Facebook’s Zuckerberg’s statement is available here. We’ve heard Zuck make similar statements in the past If you’ve watched previous hearings. “In many areas, we’re behind our competitors.” He calls out the other platforms by name for their size. He also adds Tik Tok into the mix, which has been in the news for possible security issues regarding its Chinese leadership. He also specifically mentions how many Chinese companies have climbed up in the ranks of the world’s most successful companies.
Mr. Cicilline starts off with an accusation toward Google from the investigation. He says entrepreneurs suffer when Google “steals content” from them to keep them within their own platform. He says the accusers don’t want to be named because they “fear retribution” from Google. Cicilline calls Google a “walled garden” that keeps users inside its own services. He says Google implemented a “multi-pronged attack.” He talks about the 2010 scandal regarding Google’s treatment of Yelp, which accused it of stealing restaurant reviews. He also cites a number claiming that more than 60 percent of searches that start on Google also end on Google.
Mr. Sensenbrenner says he hopes the net will become a global debate on issues, which sounds just terrible. “I’m concerned the people who manage the net…are ending up using this as a political screen.” He asks a question about a perceived “censorship” issue that actually happened on Twitter.
Mr. Nadler starts in on Facebook for its acquisition of Instagram. It’s one of the easiest examples in the anti-competition well and it seems like a good topic to talk about. Zuck says Facebook saw them as both a competitor and a complement. Nadler cites specific quotes and documents from Facebook illustrating how the company used its Instagram acquisition to prevent other startups from gaining marketshare. Zuck talks about how much Facebook did for Instagram’s success with development and promotion.
Mr. Buck starts off with questions about why Google would drop out of a military project called JEDI, which didn’t work with Alphabet’s corporate policies. He’s tacitly accusing of doing work to benefit China. Pichai explains that Google works with the U.S. government and doesn’t provide any of its services in China. Last time Pichai was in front of Congress, he said that the controversial Chinese search engine project it had been exploring has been tabled.
Mr. Jordan from Georgia starts off by asking Tim Cook about the App Store. Cook says it’s a “feature of the iPhone, much like the camera.” It’s an interesting way to view the App Store. “We have open and transparent rules,” Cook says, but that’s controversial, especially when he says it doesn’t favor some developers over others. Jordan asks what’s to stop apple from increasing its commission to 50 percent. Cook says there’s a competition for developers with Android, Windows, Xbox, or PlayStation.
Mr. Gaetz is concerned about Google possibly working with China. Pichai explains that Google only has one installment in China working on open-source AI.
Mr. Raskin asks about what Facebook is doing in regards to efforts to spur division among Americans. Zuck says Facebook has hired 30,000 people to work on safety and security and goes to the familiar well of “we built AI systems” in order to combat bad actors. Zuck says Facebook takes down “billions” of fake accounts per year.
Ms. Jayapal finally addresses Jeff Bezos. She asks if Amazon uses buyer information when deciding what products it should make itself. He says the company has a policy against using seller data to develop its own products. She responds with a Wall Street Journal report suggesting the company had done just that. Bezos says they’re still not done investigating it. She has specific examples of Amazon breaking its own policies. This has been the most specific and relevant line of questioning so far.
Mr. Steube describes various Google searches he’s done on his laptop and asks Google whether it has stopped censoring conservatives in light of this hearing. He goes on to say that his “supporters aren’t getting his campaign emails.”
Ms. Demings makes the case that Google has gained enough market power that it doesn’t have to concern itself as much about protecting user data. She mentions the DoubleClick acquisition, which she calls a “bait and switch” to get user data.
Mr. Jordan starts off exactly where he left off in the beginning. He asks Pichai if Google can vow not to help Joe Biden beat Donald Trump.
Ms. Scanlon outlines a case in which Amazon sought to use its power to undercut Diapers.com. She suggests Amazon was willing to lose hundreds of millions of dollars to undercut their competitor. Amazon eventually bought Diapers.com and then reportedly cut its promotions and raised prices on diapers. This is what the hearing is supposed to be about. This is also only the second question toward Bezos so far.
Mr. Neguse makes a list of social networks with which Facebook used to compete. He brings up a 2012 graphic in which Facebook says it’s more than 90 percent of all social media in the market. He reads an email sent from Zuck in which he “jokes” about eventually being able to buy Google the way they buy competitive startups.
Ms. McBath goes back to Jeff Bezos. She lays out a case in which a small book seller built a large business selling on Amazon’s platform. Then, the book seller lost their ability to sell without explanation. McBath suggests this represents a pattern of behavior. This is another useful example of the anti-competition concerns. Bezos responds by saying that third-party sellers are doing great on Amazon. They represent 60 percent of the sales.
Mr. Cicilline is back. He repeats some stats about Amazon’s marketshare. He points out that Amazon’s internal documents consider third party sellers “internet competitors.” He reads some unflattering quotes from entrepreneurs who feel “stuck” on the platform. “You are a data company.” He accuses Amazon of using that as leverage to press other competitors out of the space.
Mr. Sensenbrenner uses his second question to actively defend big tech and suggest they may not need to be broken up because it won’t benefit the consumers at all. He’s bad mouthing Congress after telling everyone that he has been a member of Congress for decades.
Ms. Jayapal goes back at Facebook, reading more messages between Facebook execs about buying or cloning competitors. She asks if he used the development of Facebook’s Camera app to “threaten” the CEO of Instagram. “Facebook is a case study, in my opinion, in monopoly power.” She’s taking a hard line against Facebook’s model.
Mr. Buck asks Bezos about claims that Amazon allowed more than 1,000 counterfeit Pop Sockets to appear on its sales platform until the company joined into a multi-million dollar marketing deal with the online retailer. He asks each attendee to pledge that they won’t use slave labor in the making of their products.
Mr. Raskin asks Bezos if its Fire TV platform gives it an unfair leverage against content companies that want to stream on it. He specifically wants to know when HBO will show up on Fire devices. “Are you converting power in one domain into another domain where it doesn’t belong?” He asks if the Echo devices sell for below cost. Bezos says the list price isn’t below cost, but the promotions will put it below cost.
Mr. Gaetz wants to know if Google employees can manually blacklist media targets. He explicitly accuses Google as meddling with the election.
Mr. Nadler accuses Google and Facebook of harming the music and journalism industries by using anti-competitive conduct to gain advertisement dollars. He asks Zuckerberg if he knew that Facebook was inflating video metrics in the mid-2010s that heavily influenced media outlets to pivot to video.
Mr. Steube asks questions about how Facebook picks its third-party fact checkers, which Zuck has answered several times before during hearings like this.
Mr. Johnson from Georgie brings it back to Jeff Bezos. “Why isn’t Amazon more aggressive in making sure counterfeit goods aren’t sold on its platform?” Bezos says that Amazon works to keep counterfeits off of its site. He once again brings up the Pop Sockets case. Bezos says it would be unacceptable if someone tried to strong arm Pop Sockets into buying media with them.
Mr. Armstrong asks Bezos again about whether it’s using third-party sales data to decide what products to make itself. Bezos gives the same answer. Amstrong also asks about Amazon’s game streaming platform, Twitch, and its recent issues with copyright notices regarding music during streaming. Bezos doesn’t have an answer.
Ms. Dennings takes on Facebook’s policies regarding its platform in the past. It dates back to 2012. She points out a 2013 example of MessageMe, which was quickly growing on FB’s platform and got restricted. She changes her focus to Tim Cook. She asks about an incident in which Apple removed several apps parents were using to track kids’ movements. She claims Apple gave several apps preferential treatment despite using the same underlying technology.
Ms. Scanlon asks Amazon about its policy regarding shipping non-essential products during the Pandemic. She specifically asks if Amazon deemed its own devices as essential. Bezos says he doesn’t know. He claims that demand skyrocketed when the pandemic started “like holiday shopping.” Bezos says Amazon was not focused on profitability at that time. Now she’s asking about Amazon seller fees. She suggests it went from 19 percent to 30 percent. Bezos says it’s due to more users taking advantage of Amazon services.
Mr. Neguse returns to the topic of the App Store. He asks if Apple’s own apps have to abide by the same rules as all the developers. He specifically mentions the Apple’s ban on submitting “copy cat” apps despite its history of making apps that mimic others’ functionality. Cook says, “We would never steal somebody’s IP.” He asks a similar question to Pichai—he asks him to pledge that Google with change the language in its API to prevent it from using proprietary info to develop competitive apps.
Ms. McBath is the last to question them. She asks if the companies will commit to diversity efforts, especially in the hither levels of their organizations. She asks if Facebook is using cookies to collect private information and Zuck says “no.” She asks if he thinks Facebook would be successful if it had started with today’s regulations on cookies in place.