Sunday, September 20, 2020

The biggest takeaways from the Big Tech antitrust hearing

Jul 30. 2020
Heather Kelly
Heather Kelly
Facebook Twitter

By The Washington Post · Heather Kelly · NATIONAL, BUSINESS, TECHNOLOGY, CONGRESS 

They came for blood.

For more than five hours, lawmakers questioned the CEOs of four of the world's largest technology companies about antitrust, anti-conservative bias and more. It was an aggressive, wide-ranging hearing that was held to determine whether the companies' outsize power and influence was bad for competition and consumers.

And the lawmakers showed up with evidence - both in the form of documents and people - to hold the CEOs accountable. It was clear many had also done their research, navigating complicated tech jargon to try to pin the executives down.

Both Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Sundar Pichai faced a flood of questions on whether their platforms are biased against conservatives. Apple's Tim Cook, who received the fewest questions, was confronted on the company's app store policies. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was quizzed on how the e-commerce site uses competitive data from third-party sellers, with real-life examples of people who said they were hurt by the company's tactics. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Lawmakers did not let up on the intensity just because the subjects were beaming in over video connections and in-person attendees were in masks. The hearing was peppered with interruptions of the CEOs, even as they tried to keep sharing their talking points.

Here are some of the biggest takeaways from tech's big day on Capitol Hill.

- - -

Lawmakers came prepared

Not everyone stuck to the topic of the hearing, but the lawmakers who focused on antitrust questions had clearly absorbed the specifics from the committee's year-long investigation. They also displayed a better understanding of the technology itself than in previous tech hearings.

It was evidenced out of the gate, as Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., chairman of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, asked detailed questions about how Google has developed its business.

"The evidence seems very clear to me: As Google became the gateway to the Internet, it began to abuse its power," Cicilline said. "It used its surveillance over Web traffic to begin to identify competitive threats and crush them. It has dampened innovation and new business growth, and it has dramatically increased the price of accessing users on the Internet, virtually ensuring that any business that wants to be found on the Web must pay Google a tax."

A report on the companies' investigation into the companies is expected to be released in August.

- - -

Republicans asked about anti-conservative bias

There were quite a few off-topic moments during the hearing, from complaining about emails going straight to spam, to asking each CEO to commit to not working with suppliers who use "slave labor." But it was complaints of anti-conservative bias that popped up again and again throughout the hearing, often with a dramatic flair that seemed directed more at people outside the hearing than lawmakers or executives.

In his opening remarks, Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the top Republican on the subcommittee, signaled that it would be a line of questioning for many members on the committee.

"Conservatives are consumers, too, and they need the protection of antitrust laws," he said.

The CEO's batted away most of the questions.

Bezos at one point, when questioned about "cancel culture," described social media as a "nuance-destruction machine."

- - -

CEOs were put on the defensive

Over the course of the more-than-five-hour hearing, the executives were interrupted and cut off repeatedly by lawmakers on all sides. While Republican and Democrats' main issues with the companies varied, their unhappiness with the companies was consistent.

The CEOs have been trained to not give away too much and fill in the blanks with stock phrases, but with just five minutes on the clock for each question, lawmakers quickly cut them off when it was clear that they were not being direct.

It was a change of pace for the wealthy and powerful CEOs who are used to calling the shots at their own companies. The aggressive questioning often used the executives own past words against them as lawmakers quoted lines from old emails.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., unearthed an email in which Zuckerberg told the founder of Instagram, in the process of negotiations to acquire the photo-sharing service in 2012, that he was building a copycat camera service. The Instagram founder confided in an investor at the time that he feared Zuckerberg would "go into destroy mode" if he did not sell Instagram to him.

"Facebook's very model makes it hard for new companies to flourish," Jayapal said.

Zuckerberg said he did not recall some of the exchanges she was referring to.

- - -

Even Bezos forgets to unmute

While most lawmakers were present in person for the hearing, the CEOs all appeared over video chat due to the pandemic. Classic teleconferencing high jinks ensued.

At one point, Bezos tried speaking without unmuting his line. Earlier in the day, a slow connection delayed Zuckerberg's voice so his words were not in sync with his lips. The hearing paused early on to fix issues with Bezos' video. And like any regular marathon video-call participants, Zuckerberg and Bezos grabbed a few snacks while on camera.

Overall, the distance did not alter the intensity of the process. Each executive seemed the proper amount of serious and under-pressure during questioning, and lawmakers did not hold back when it came to interrupting or talking over them to make a point or force the CEOs to get to the point.

- - -

Amazon was in the hot seat; Apple flew under the radar

The lawmakers took their time getting to questions for Bezos, but ended the day spending much of the time on the head of Amazon. Meanwhile, Cook received the fewest questions from the 15 member panel.

In one notable moment, Bezos said he could not guarantee that data collected from third-party sellers was not used to launch Amazon's own options. The company's relationship with - and power over - its third-party sellers was a frequent topic.

Jayapal, who represents the Seattle area where many Amazon employees work, pressed Bezos on whether Amazon ever used third-party-seller data to make business decisions.

"What I can tell you is we have a policy against using seller-specific data to aid our private label business," Bezos replied. "But I can't guarantee you that policy has never been violated."

At one point, Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., asked all four CEOs to pledge to avoid using "slave labor."

Cook said, "We would terminate a supplier relationship if it were found."

---

Heather Kelly is a reporter covering the ways technology affects everyday life. Based in San Francisco, she joined The Washington Post in 2019 after seven years at CNN, where she worked as a writer and editor covering consumer technology trends and Silicon Valley.

Tags:
Facebook Twitter
More in Business
Editor’s Picks
wmg-logo
Top News
wmg-logo