Big Tech CEOs Appear Before Congressional Antitrust Committee

Posted on July 30, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in Amazon, Apple, Google, Social with 21 Comments

Yesterday, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Google’s Sundar Pichai all testified, virtually, before a House Judiciary Committee hearing to try and explain why their respective market power shouldn’t be reined in. The hearing lasted 6 hours and only produced a few surprising moments. In fact, what didn’t happen was the most outrageous moment of the day: No one grilled Cook on his firm’s egregious and anti-competitive app store policies.

I won’t bore you with the stupid, as it should come as no surprise that the mostly elderly congresspeople who attended the hearing clearly don’t understand technology and often came off as clueless uncles asking their nephews about how email works at a Thanksgiving get-together. But there are a few points worth mentioning.

First, as The New York Times points out, each of the CEOs wore surprisingly similar outfits that came off more as costumes than their normal clothing. This was clearly done to make the men less threatening and different to the suit-wearing crowd in D.C. and should be seen as the political theater it was.

Second, Apple Tim Cook came off with the lightest grilling by far: He was questioned only 7 times, compared to 16 for Pichai and Zuckerberg and 13 for Bezos. He was asked 35 questions overall, compared to 62 for Zuckerberg, 61 for Pichai, and 59 for Bezos. Put another way, Cook only spent one-third as much time defending his company’s incredible business practices as did his competitors.

The biggest gaff of the day came from Bezos, who surprisingly conceded that Amazon almost certainly uses data from third-party sellers to determine which products it should make and sell itself.

“I can’t guarantee you that that policy has never been violated,” he said. “We continue to look into that very carefully. I’m not yet satisfied that we’ve gotten to the bottom of it, and we’re going to keep looking at it.”

Zuckerberg didn’t come off very well either. When asked whether his firm purchased Instagram specifically so that it could remove a competitor from the market, he conceded that it did.

“I’ve been clear that Instagram was a competitor in the space of mobile photo sharing,” he said. “By having them join us, they certainly went from being a competitor in the space of being a mobile camera to an app that we could help grow and to help get more people to be able to use.”

Never asked to justify his company’s app store, which charges an incredible 15 to 30 percent vig on all in-app purchases and subscriptions and doesn’t offer competitors a way to use competing online stores or payment systems, Apple’s Mr. Cook was mostly asked some softball questions. He claimed that Apple, the world’s largest tech firm, wasn’t dominant in any market in which it competed, and that it had kicked third-party screen-time monitoring apps out of the store because it cared about kids’ privacy, and not because Apple began offering a competing solution.

Mr. Pichai offered up a similar defense of Google, noting that companies wishing to advertise online have plenty of other choices. He had a harder time dealing with the bizarre partisan complaints brought by Republicans than he did with actual business practices concerns.

That said, I will give some credit to representative David Cicilline, who complained that Facebook does too little to stop the spread of misinformation on its network.

“The problem is Facebook is profiting off and amplifying disinformation that harms others because it’s profitable. This isn’t a [free] speech issue,” he said. “It’s about Facebook’s business model that prioritizes engagement. It brings the most likes or it brings the most activity, which of course brings a great profit. The more engagement you create, the more money you make on advertising.”


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Comments (22)

22 responses to “Big Tech CEOs Appear Before Congressional Antitrust Committee”

  1. madthinus

    Two of these CEO's at least wears a tie regularly. Can you spot them?

  2. hallmanac

    When most of those on the committee don't know the actual difference between Twitter and Facebook (i.e. the question to Zuckerberg of why Junior's account was taken down on twitter), I think we can hardly expect them to expect to be able to talk about a deeper topic of Apple's App Store practices. That whole thing was a complete circus.

  3. simard57

    Is this a sign that Microsoft is irrelevant in society -- or that they mind their Ps & Qs?

    • Paul Thurrott

      It's perhaps irrelevant with consumers.
      • wright_is

        In reply to paul-thurrott:

        Except that a big part of the original EU hearing, back in the 90s, wasn't to do with consumers either. It was "secret" APIs on their server software, lack of documentation and having to have a Windows license for your server, when you bought a server for Novell or Linux for example.

        The XP media player was a diversion, because it said something to consumers. A lot of the big changes went on in the background and only ever got real coverage in the business IT press or sites that concentrated on Microsoft. Very little of the important stuff was covered on the general press and general IT press, they all went with the browser ballot and XP N Edition, they ignored the rest; which is one of the reasons that the decision still gets derided these days, because all most people remember is the stupid Browser Ballot box, which was irrelevant by the time it was implemented anyway.

        But thanks to the EU, developers got much more thorough documentation on Microsoft's holy APIs.

        But, yes, today, I agree with you it isn't as relevant for consumers. Most people have more phones/tablets in the house than PCs and a majority spend more time on those devices than they do on PCs.

  4. BrianEricFord

    Wait, everything else aside, you’re upset that they wore suits to a congressional hearing?

    What sort of “different” suits would you expect them to wear while testifying under oath to a governmental body? Men’s suits typically come in 3 or 4 colors. They’re all cut almost exactly alike.

    Obama was mocked endlessly for wearing a tan suit!

  5. illuminated

    Congress is just wasting time. They have no idea how stuff works and have no guts to change anything.

    • wright_is

      In reply to illuminated:

      As far as I understand it, the experts are in the back room and doing the real work, the bozos in front of the camera are just there for election grandstanding - although how making yourself look like a buffoon is supposed to help your campaign, I'm not sure.

  6. Andi

    Mr. Thurrott, all the officials are iphone users and genuinely never cared or understood app store policies.

  7. BBoileau

    Comparing and contrasting the story about the EU changing its laws around anti-trust practice's, it show how out of touch the business friendly model of the US has become.

  8. Randall Lewis

    I would never try to defend most members of Congress, but Cicilline is no dummy and neither is the committee staff, so it is likely that this on-going investigation will continue past this theatrical hearing. Non tech reporters have tended to conclude that Google is in the biggest risk and that Pichai did not help himself and I've heard that much of the non public information the committee had gathered is complaints about Google.

  9. vernonlvincent

    Did anyone notice how Bezos sounds (and looks) like Wilson Fisk from Daredevil?

  10. reefer

    I only watched some of the C-span streaming on Youtube of the hearing but its evident that Apple is still the politicans darling and that they have singled out Facebook and Amazon as the big evil in ....well, big tech.

    Google seems to be positioned as something in between that.

  11. bart

    After this comical show, let's leave real anti trust to the EU. Complain about them all you want, it is none of this malarkey.

  12. lvthunder

    So who should decide what is disinformation and what's not?

  13. F4IL

    Apple execs are unwilling to be humble in front of anything, which comes off as obnoxiously patronizing.

    • Hawaiianteg

      In reply to F4IL:

      And they have no reason to be. The reason they got questioned the least is because the gov got nothing on them. Cook handled it very well, in fact better then I expected. I wish Steve Jobs was there cause he would have grilled that whole panel. Like I said in previous posts Apple if anything will make slight to 0 changes because the gov got nothing on them.

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