On Wednesday, the leaders of America’s four largest technology companies – Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook – appeared virtually before the House Judiciary Committee. The issue on the table? Monopolies.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) has spearheaded a months-long inquiry into antitrust violations by the country’s technology giants. At the hearing, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers grilled the CEOs about whether their companies had unfairly quashed competition. In parallel, Republican lawmakers posed questions about whether the companies engaged in anti-conservative bias. Here are the big takeaways.
Bezos’ First Hearing
One of the most anticipated appearances at the hearing was that of Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, and currently the richest man alive. Bezos had never testified before Congress.
Lawmakers asked Bezos about Amazon’s approach to pricing, to acquisition, and to the use of third-party data. In response to a question about whether Amazon collects data from its customers and then uses it to develop Amazon-branded products, Bezos was vague. While he pointed to an internal policy that forbids such a practice, he admitted, “I can’t guarantee you that policy has never been violated.”
Zuckerberg’s Competition Problem
Another tense subject was Facebook’s history of copying competitor’s products or acquiring competitors to maintain its role as the internet’s largest social network. While questioning Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, lawmakers raised specific questions about Facebook’s 2012 acquisition of Instagram.
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) pointed out emails that Zuckerberg had sent back in 2012. In them, Zuckerberg expresses fear that Instagram could be “very disruptive” to his company. Then, the chief financial officer emailed Zuckerberg that buying Instagram could help neutralize the threat. Zuckerberg replied that he agreed, and it was a major reason he was eager to purchase the app.
As a result, Nadler accused Zuckerberg of buying Instagram only to silence a competitor. In response, Zuckerberg said that he was never threatened by Instagram. And the acquisition, he added, was approved by the Federal Trade Commission.
All four tech tycoons appealed to patriotism as they defended their businesses. First, Bezos referenced that Americans could “trust” Amazon because it was an American company, adding, “We need American workers to get products to American customers.”
Meanwhile, Tim Cook, the leader of Apple, presented the company as an American Dream come true. “Apple is a uniquely American company whose success is only possible in this country,” he told the panel.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai followed recalling his childhood in India where he didn’t have a computer. He spoke of immigrating to the US for college, learning computer science, and finding his way into one of the most successful companies in history.
Finally, Mark Zuckerberg warned that American dominance in the technology is under threat not by the major American corporations, but by Chinese competitors. “If you look at where the top technology companies come from, a decade ago the vast majority were American,” the Facebook CEO said. “Today, almost half are Chinese.”
While Democratic representatives mostly focused their questioning on data issues and antitrust concerns, some Republicans took the opportunity to air grievances about supposed anti-conservative bias. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) went directly to the issue. “I’ll just cut to the chase,” he said, “Big Tech’s out to get conservatives.”
Accusing Google of trying to tilt the 2016 election in Hillary Clinton’s favor, Jordan asked Pichai to promise that Google wouldn’t “tailor” its features to support the candidacy of Joe Biden. Standing his ground, Pichai denied any effort to advance a political agenda.
“There’s nothing in the algorithm that has anything to do with political ideology,” the Google chief said. “We do get complaints across the aisle.”
Silicon Valley Vibe
The stereotype that technologists are reticent and unflashy proved to be true in Wednesday’s hearing. While some lawmakers showed their passion on the dais, the four executives generally kept their cool and showed deference to their questioners. Additionally, due to the technical constraints of a video-conference hearing, the cross-talk and interruptions that often turn hearings into television spectacles, were simply not possible.