For five hours on Wednesday, the four Big Tech CEOs of the world’s most powerful companies faced a grilling from US lawmakers in Washington, in an unprecedented hearing over alleged anti-competitive practices at their companies.
The hearing was the first time that Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sundar Pichai of Google’s parent Alphabet appeared together before Congress.
The Big Tech CEOs, appearing via video link, all faced moments in the spotlight from the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee, with Pichai and Zuckerberg receiving the most attention. It was sixth and final hearing into competition in the digital market by the committee, and a culmination of more than 1.3 million documents and hundreds of hours of interviews and testimonies.
There are long-standing concerns that the four companies, worth a combined $4.85tn, have become too dominant for rivals to compete on the same level.
Antitrust regulators fear that a lack of competition will lead to higher prices for consumers. However, when digital platforms offer services for free – as Facebook and Google do – it is difficult for lawmakers to prove that consumers are worse off.
Another charge is that a lack of competition stifles innovation, which in theory could lead to subpar products and services for consumers. But given the four tech giants are known for being at the cutting edge of innovation, this is again difficult to prove.
As such, Congress is considering new antitrust laws that are appropriate for the digital age, which could prevent so much power being concentrated in so few companies.
Here are some of the key topics the Big Tech CEOs were grilled on.
Facebook: “Neutralise a threat”
Zuckerberg, no stranger to a grilling from Congress, was questioned about Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram in 2012 for $1bn.
Democratic congressman Jerrold Nadler pressed the Facebook chief on reports that he chose to acquire Instagram rather than compete with it. Internal Facebook documents from 2012 showed Zuckerberg describing the reason for buying Instagram was to “neutralise a threat”. He then walked back those comments, sent via email, an hour later.
“I’ve always been clear that we viewed Instagram both as a competitor and as a complement to our services,” Zuckerberg replied.
Instagram is now worth more than $100bn and has more than a billion monthly active users.
“With hindsight, it probably looks obvious that Instagram would reach the scale it has today, but at the time it was far from obvious,” Zuckerberg said.
However, Nadler continued to assert that Facebook bought Instagram to neutralise a competitor.
“This is exactly the type of anticompetitive acquisition that the antitrust laws were designed to prevent,” he said.
Bezos, the richest person in the world, testified before Congress for the first time. He was grilled about Amazon’s practice, revealed by the Wall Street Journal in April, of using data from its third-party sellers to inform its own product decisions.
Bezos did not deny the practice, which one third-party seller described as “Amazon heroin” in a testimonial read out by the committee.
Also faced questions about Amazon’s essential product policy during the pandemic, which did not delay the delivery of Amazon products such as its Alexa smart speakers and Ring doorbells.
“There was no playbook for this, demand went through the roof,” replied Bezos. “Our goal was to limit to essential supplies but I am sure we did not do that perfectly.”
Like the other Big Tech CEOs, Bezos welcomed scrutiny from regulators.
“We should scrutinise all large institutions, whether they’re companies, government agencies, or non-profits,” he said. “Our responsibility is to make sure we pass such scrutiny with flying colours.”
Google: “Too much traffic”
Google chief Pichai arguably faced the most attention from the committee. He faced allegations that Google stole content from developers, skewed search results to profit Google and was questioned about Google’s ad platform dominance.
Google accounts for 29.4% of the digital ad market, with Facebook following at 23.4%
The committee cited documents that showed Google employees feared rival websites diverting traffic and revenue from Google ten years ago.
“Google’s memos observed that certain websites were getting, and I quote, ‘too much traffic’. So Google decided to put an end to that,” said Democratic congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island.
Pichai denied these allegations and argued that Google provided a platform for smaller competitors to connect with consumers.
“New competitors emerge every day and today users have more access to information than ever before,” said Pichai. “Competition drives us to innovate and it also leads to better products, lower choices and more choice for everyone.”
Google is currently under several antitrust investigations by law enforcement in various US states.
Google was also accused of working with China and accepting money from the country’s military by Republican congressman Matt Gaetz.
“We are not working with the Chinese military, it’s absolutely false,” replied Pichai.
Apple: “The rules are made up as you go”
Cook faced questions over Apple’s App Store practices, which is currently the subject of an EU antitrust probe. Apple takes a 30% cut of the revenue from some applications listing on the store, as well as placing other restrictions on developers.
“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,” said Democratic congressman Hank Johnson of Georgia. “That’s an enormous amount of power.”
Cook countered that the vast majority of developers were able to keep 100% of the money they made through the App Store and that Apple hasn’t raised the commission price since in launched in 2008.
“If Apple is the gatekeeper, what we’ve done is open the gate wider,” said Cook. “We want to get every app we can on the store, not keep them off.”
“Big Tech is out to get conservatives”
Many Republicans used the hearing to question the Big Tech CEOs of suppressing right-wing voices.
“I will just cut to the chase: Big Tech is out to get conservatives,” said Republican congressman Jim Jordan of Ohio. “That’s not a suspicion, that’s not a hunch, that’s a fact.”
Ahead of the hearing, President Donald Trump tweeted:
“If Congress doesn’t bring fairness to Big Tech, which they should have done years ago, I will do it myself with Executive Orders. In Washington, it has been ALL TALK and NO ACTION for years, and the people of our Country are sick and tired of it!”
Republican Jim Sensenbrenner asked why Donald Trump Jr recently had a post about the drug hydroxychloroquine taken down.
Zuckerberg: “What you might be referring to happened on Twitter so it’s hard for me to speak to that.”
Republican congressman Greg Steube accused Google of repressing a conservative website and said his emails were going into the spam folders of his constituents.
“There’s nothing in the algorithm that has anything to do with political ideology,” replied Pichai. “We do get complaints across the aisle.”
However, Republican Jamie Raskin turned his attention on his colleagues on the issue: “Top-performing links [and] posts on Facebook … are right-wing sites.
“If Facebook is trying to repress conservative speech they are doing a terrible job. I don’t understand the whining.”