WASHINGTON (News Nation) — Four Big Tech CEOs — Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Sundar Pichai of Google and Tim Cook of Apple — spent Wednesday afternoon answering to the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust for their companies’ practices before Congress as a House panel caps its yearlong investigation of market dominance in the industry.
The four command corporations with top brands, millions or even billions of customers, have a combined value greater than the entire German economy. One of them is the world’s richest individual (Bezos); another is the fourth-ranked billionaire (Zuckerberg). Their industry has transformed society, linked people around the globe, mined and commercialized users’ personal data and found critics on both the left and right over speech.
During his opening remarks Wednesday as the four CEOs prepared to testify virtually, committee chair David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island, accused them of having what is essentially a monopoly on the technology industry.
“Any single action by one of these companies can affect hundreds of millions of us in profound and lasting ways,” Cicilline said. “Simply put: They have too much power.”
Critics question whether the companies violate antitrust laws, unlawfully stifle competition and innovation, raise prices for consumers and pose a danger to society.
In its bipartisan investigation, the panel 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: Whether existing competition policies and century-old antitrust laws are adequate for overseeing the tech giants, or if new legislation and enforcement funding is needed.
The companies face legal and political offensives on multiplying fronts, from Congress, President Donald Trump’s administration, federal and state regulators and European watchdogs. The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission have been investigating the four companies’ practices.
Each company has a distinct profile and sets its widening footprint in specific markets, and each tech titan has his own approach and story to tell.
Jeff Bezos – Amazon
For Bezos, who presides over an e-commerce empire and ventures in cloud computing, personal “smart” tech and beyond, it was his first-ever appearance before Congress.
Bezos answered questions about why Amazon-promoted brands show up first when consumers ask the company’s signature voice device, Alexa, to find a product.
“I don’t know if it’s been trained in that way,” Bezos told Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin. “I’m sure there are cases where we do promote our own products is of course a common practice in business so it wouldn’t surprise me if Alexa sometimes does promote our own products.”
In his prepared remarks, Bezos laid out his challenges growing up in New Mexico as the son of a single mother in high school, and later with an adoptive father who emigrated from Cuba at 16. He also traced his origins as a “garage inventor” who came up with the concept of an online bookstore in 1994.
He addresses the issue of Amazon’s power in what he describes as a huge and competitive global retail market. The company accounts for less than 4% of retail in the U.S., Bezos maintains. He affirms his rebuff to critics who call for the company to be broken up: Walmart is more than twice Amazon’s size, he said.
Bezos initially declined to testify unless he could appear with the other CEOs. He’ll likely face questioning over a Wall Street Journal report that found Amazon employees used confidential data collected from sellers on its online marketplace to develop competing products. At a previous hearing, an Amazon executive denied such accusations.
Facebook – Mark Zuckerberg
In the wake of George Floyd’s death and protests against racial injustice, Facebook’s handling of hate speech has recently drawn controversy on issues of competition and privacy, especially after Facebook’s inaction on posts that spread misinformation.
Zuckerberg has said the company aims to allow as much free expression as possible unless it causes imminent risk of specific harm or damage.
“We believe in values —democracy, competition, inclusion and free expression — that the American economy was built on,” he said in his testimony prepared for the hearing.
“Ultimately, I believe companies shouldn’t be making so many judgments about important issues like harmful content, privacy and election integrity on their own,” Zuckerberg said. “That’s why I’ve called for a more active role for governments and regulators, and updated rules for the internet.”
The panel also asked Zuckerberg about Facebook’s role in banning what he sees to be misinformation about the coronavirus.
“We do take that down,” Zuckerberg said of content that promotes COVID cures that doctors and published studies say are ineffective. “We do not prohibit discussion around trials of drugs, or people saying that they think that things might work, or personal experiences with experimental drugs. But if someone is going to say that something is proven, when in fact it is not, that then could lead people to make a decision with their health.”
Google (Alphabet) – Sundar Pichai
European regulators have concluded that Google manipulated its search engine to gain an unfair advantage over other online shopping sites in the e-commerce market, and fined Google, whose parent is Alphabet Inc., a record $2.7 billion. Google has disputed the findings and is appealing.
Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., questioned Pichai about whether, when he became CEO in 2015, he signed off on an act that would have prohibited Google from merging users’ computer data with search results.
Pichai evaded the question, saying simply, “I reviewed at a high level all the important decisions we make.”
“We today make it very easy for users to be in control of their data,” Pichai said. “We have simplified their settings, they can turn ads personalization on or off — we have combined most of activity settings into three groupings. We remind users to go do a privacy check up. One billion users have done so.”
Attorneys general from both parties in 50 states and territories, led by Texas, launched an antitrust investigation of Google in September, focused on its online advertising business.
“Google operates in highly competitive and dynamic global markets, in which prices are free or falling, and products are constantly improving,” Pichai said in his written testimony. “Competition in ads — from Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Comcast and others — has helped lower online advertising costs by 40% over the last 10 years, with these savings passed down to consumers through lower prices.”
Apple – Tim Cook
Apple, whose iPhone is the third-largest seller in the world, faces EU investigations over the fees charged by its App Store and technical limitations that allegedly shut out competitors to Apple Pay.
“Apple does not have a dominant market share in any market where we do business,” Cook said.
He is making the case that the fees Apple charges apps to sell services and other goods are reasonable, especially compared with what other tech companies collect. In over a decade since the App Store launched, “we have never raised the commission or added a single fee,” Cook said in his prepared testimony.
Full Prepared Remarks
Jeff Bezos – Amazon
Mark Zuckerberg – Facebook
Sundar Pichai – Alphabet
Tim Cook – Apple
Reporting by Marcy Gordon, AP
The Associated Press contributed to this report.