In Brief

Tech giants face congressional antitrust scrutiny

Washington D.C.

30 July 2020

The chief executives of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google have appeared before a House antitrust panel, facing questions over their business tactics and market dominance.

The 15 members of the congressional antitrust panel grilled Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sundar Pichai of Google, who appeared via videolink.

Over the course of the hearing, questions from panel members frequently followed party line. Democrat lawmakers focused on the tech giants financial ability to kill-off startups and gain competitive advantages through their vast data banks; Republicans questioned whether the tech companies had silenced conservative viewpoints.

“As gatekeepers to the digital economy, these platforms enjoy the power to pick winners and losers, shake down small businesses and enrich themselves while choking off competitors,” said David Cicilline, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee. “Our founders would not bow before a king. Nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy.”

The hearing represents the first time since Microsoft stood trial for antitrust charges in 1998 that the tech giants have been placed under such political scrutiny. In spite of this, it has been widely noted that US antitrust laws are not well suited to combatting internet firms. These laws are largely premised on consumer welfare and frequently hooked to preventing price rises. In the case of the tech giants, which have largely not driven up prices for services or consumer goods, the laws have less bite.

The four CEOs appeared jointly on a screen, dialling into proceedings using Cisco’s Webex videoconferencing service. Of the four, Pichai and Zuckerberg received the most scrutiny, followed by Bezos. Apple's Cook was asked the fewest questions.

Across the board, the CEOs largely evaded answering questions about the strategies by which their companies had risen, and painted themselves as participants in competitive, rapidly evolving marketplaces. “We approach this process with respect and humility, but we make no concession on the facts,” said Cook at the start of his testimony.

Google faced scrutiny for its domination of search functions online and allegations from small businesses that the company had taken over their content and listed it on its own pages. “Why does Google steal content from honest businesses?” Cicilline asked Pichai, who responded: “Mr. Chairman, with respect, I disagree with that characterisation.”

Zuckerberg faced questioning over Facebook's purchase of Instagram in 2012, and critique of its internal emails which revealed the purchase to have been discussed as a strategy to take out a competitor. Congressman Jerry Nadler called the acquisition “ exactly the type of anticompetitive acquisition the antitrust laws were designed to prevent”.

Bezos was asked about Amazon's possible misuse of data, to which he responded that he couldn't “answer that question yes or no”, as well as whether the company used its power to bully small merchants. Bezos said that that was “not how we operate the business”.

Cook was grilled over concerns that Apple's App Store review processes are not available to developers, potentially enabling the company to favour some over others. “The rules are made up as you go and subject to change - and Apple expects developers to go along with the changes or leave the App Store,” said representative Hank Johnson of Georgia,. “That’s an enormous amount of power.”