The chief executives from four of the world’s biggest tech firms appeared before a Congressional antitrust hearing yesterday to discuss claims the firms are stifling competition.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Apple boss Tim Cook appeared before the House Judiciary Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law Subcommittee amid a troubling period for the companies.
American lawmakers are considering tougher regulations to crack down on large tech firms. Competition probes are underway in both the US and Europe, and staunch critics have called for certain firms to be broken up.
In particular, Google has found itself in lawmakers’ crosshairs on both sides of the Atlantic while rarely a month passes without Facebook courting controversy in some capacity.
The tech supremos refuted accusations that their respective companies abuse market dominance and limit competition. Combined, the companies have a joint-market value of more than $5 trillion (£3.8trn).
In his prepared remarks before the panel, Bezos went so far as to say the world “needs” large companies such as Amazon. Mark Zuckerberg also insisted that Facebook had enabled and accelerated innovation in the tech sector.
“I love garage entrepreneurs – I was one,” Bezos said. “But, just like the world needs small companies, it also needs large ones. There are things small companies simply can’t do.”
David Cicilline, Democratic Congressman leading the congressional committee, revealed that investigations by US lawmakers had uncovered evidence that some tech giants were using their power in “destructive, harmful ways” to accelerate expansion.
Cicilline called for stronger regulations and warned the firms could be broken up to prevent further monopolisation. “Some need to be broken up and all need to be properly regulated,” Cicilline said.
Google, once again, found itself subject to intense scrutiny. Questioning Pichai, Cicilline suggested that Google has actively stifled competition and prevented smaller businesses from operating within its sphere of influence.
In particular, he accused Google to de-listing Yelp from search results amid a dispute over Google’s ability to use reviews from the website.
“Why does Google steal content from honest businesses?” Cicilline asked Sundar Pichai.
Pichai, who served as Chief Executive of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, rejected the congressman’s claims and denied the tech giant would “steal content” from other organisations.
Watch the Hearing
Amazon found itself in the firing line over its alleged treatment of sellers on the retail site. According to Cicilline, Amazon’s “dual role” as both the host and seller of similar products is “fundamentally anti-competitive” and is a major conflict of interest.
Amazon has been previously accused of using sales data to launch its own in-house versions of popular products. Cicilline called on Congress to “take action” against the firm and suggested it has an inherent conflict of interest in this regard.
Apple boss Tim Cook was also questioned over the firm’s app store policies. Apple has been criticised over its treatment of third-party app developers in recent years. Cook insisted that all developers were treated equally and insisted the market remains competitive and transparent.
Facebook’s 2012 acquisition of Instagram was a key focal point during Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony. Lawmakers suggested the acquisition was influenced, in part, by the fact Instagram was posing a significant threat to Facebook.
Zuckerberg denied the takeover was an attempt to stifle competition, stating: “It was clear that this was a space that we were going to compete in one way or another. I don’t view those conversations as a threat in any way.”
Party Political Focus
Throughout the committee hearing, there was a notable difference in focus between Democrats and Republicans. Democrat lawmakers focused firmly on the competition argument, with the market dominance of each tech giant frequently called into question.
Conversely, Republican members appeared reluctant to support calls for breaking up the firms. The issue of ‘political bias’ was, however, a topical issue.
“Being big is not inherently bad, quite the opposite. In America, you should be rewarded for success,” said republican James Sensenbrenner.
During a scathing tirade, Republican Jim Jordan accused Google of augmenting search results to favour the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, Hilary Clinton, and sought confirmation on whether the firm would do the same for Joe Biden.
“Here we are 97 days before the election and we want to make sure it’s not going to happen again,” he said.
“Can you give us two assurances? That you are not going to tailor your features, configure your platform in a way to help Joe Biden and, second, that you are not going to use your search engine to silence conservatives?” Jordan asked.
Pichai strongly denied the accusations made by representative Jordan and rejected claims that the tech giant skews its search results in favour of specific political parties or candidates.
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The perceived political bias among technology firms has been a recurring topic for American conservatives in recent months. President Donald Trump has frequently accused Facebook and Twitter of silencing conservative voices and unfairly targeting right-wing pundits.
During the hearing, Zuckerberg was asked to comment on Donald Trump Jr’s temporary removal from Twitter earlier this week. The President’s son had posted a video on Covid-19 drug, hydroxychloroquine, which Twitter deemed to be misleading.
Zuckerberg appeared sympathetic to the situation Twitter has found itself in and suggested that, under similar circumstances, Facebook would have also removed the content.