Subcommittee Chairperson David Cicilline tore into the CEOs with allegations of corporate espionage, unethical business practice, privacy violations, and monopoly.

Four big tech CEOs during a House Judiciary subcommittee on July 29, 2020.
Four big tech CEOs during a House Judiciary subcommittee on July 29, 2020. (Live Stream via YouTube)

Four of America's big tech CEOs are facing monopoly power accusations by Congress as a House panel caps its year-long investigation of market dominance in the industry.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Sundar Pichai of Google and Tim Cook of Apple were all sworn in remotely on Wednesday and had to answer for their companies’ practices.

Unfair edge

The executives provided bursts of data showing how competitive their markets are, and the value of their innovation and essential services to consumers.

Throughout the session, they faced one recurring question: are their companies too big, and too powerful? 

Members of Congress hammered Pichai about his company's ties to China and whether it steals ideas from other businesses. 

Zuckerberg faced tough questions about a flurry of disinformation plaguing his social network.  

He also had to defend his company’s management of Instagram, referring to the Federal Trade Commission’s original decision not to challenge the company’s 2012 merger with Instagram.

Subcommittee Chairperson David Cicilline dismissed this, saying the “failures” of the FTC in 2012 “do not alleviate” Facebook’s current antitrust challenges.

Cook had to answer questions regarding whether his iPhone-maker strong-arms developers on its App Store.

Rather interestingly, Bezos faced no questions nearly two hours into the session.

Shouting match

The tech titans sometimes struggled to answer pointed questions about their business practices, which were fielded remotely by lawmakers, most of whom were masked, and present in the hearing room in Washington.

But even the subcommittee showed early rifts in purpose, belying bipartisan tensions. 

Cicilline, a Democrat, set the tone early, with an opening statement vowing to check the power of the "emperors of the online economy." 

Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the full Judiciary panel, who agreed with the approach, nonetheless laid out a long series of alleged slights against conservatives by top social media companies, which resulted in a shouting match after a Democrat accused him of promoting “fringe conspiracy theories.”

Bad business

Some of the toughest questions Google and Amazon had to face involved accusations that they used their platforms to collect data about competitors in a way that gave them an unfair advantage.

In his first-ever testimony to Congress, Bezos said that he couldn’t guarantee that the company had not accessed seller data to make competing products. This was an allegation that the company had previously denied.

Regulators in the US and Europe have studied  Amazon’s relationship with the businesses that sell on its site, and whether the online shopping giant has been using data from sellers to create its own brand of private-label products. 

Pichai's opening remarks emphasised Google's value to mom-and-pop businesses in the home districts of the antitrust panel's chairman, before Cicilline cut him off for not answering the question.

The Google executive struggled as Cicilline accused the company of leveraging its dominant search engine to steal ideas and information from other websites, in addition to manipulating its results to drive people to its own digital services to boost its profits.

Pichai repeatedly asserted that Google tries to provide the most helpful and relevant information to hundreds of millions of people who use its search engine each day in an effort to keep them coming back instead of defecting to a rival service, such as Microsoft’s Bing.

Not satisfied with the hearing, President Donald Trump challenged Congress to crack down on the companies, which he has accused, without evidence, of bias against him and conservatives in general.

“If Congress doesn't bring fairness to Big Tech, which they should have done years ago, I will do it myself with Executive Orders," Trump tweeted.

While Executive orders are more limited in scope than laws passed by Congress, they stilll have the force of law. Presidents can't use executive powers to alter federal statutes, however. That requires congressional action.

Trump's path

Trump's Justice Department has urged Congress to roll back long-held legal protections for online platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter. 

The proposed changes would strip some of the bedrock protections that have generally shielded the companies from legal responsibility for what people post on their platforms. 

The four tech CEOs command corporations with gold-plated brands, millions or even billions of customers, and a combined value greater than the entire German economy. One of them, Bezos, is the world’s richest individual; Zuckerberg is the fourth-ranked billionaire.

Critics have questioned whether the companies stifle competition and innovation, raise prices for consumers and pose a danger to society. 

In its bipartisan investigation, the Judiciary subcommittee collected testimony from mid-level executives of the four firms, competitors and legal experts, and pored over more than a million internal documents from the companies. 

A key question arises through it all: are existing competition policies and century-old antitrust laws are adequate for overseeing the tech titans, or is new legislation and enforcement funding.

Too big to fail

Cicilline openly called the four companies monopolies, although he says breaking them up should be a last resort. 

Cicilline also said that in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, “these giants stand to profit” and become even more powerful as millions shift more of their work and commerce online.

The companies face legal and political offensives on multiplying fronts, from Congress, the Trump administration, federal and state regulators and European watchdogs.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies