August 11, 2020

Big Tech’s hearing in Congress didn’t provide any real answers

Partisanship and the CEOs' own evasiveness prevented deep inquiries into tech competition.

Zuckerberg Cook

  • The CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google have testified before a House committee on tech competition.
  • However, there were precious few answers.
  • Partisanship and the CEOs’ own reluctance to address made progress difficult.

The technology world had a moment of reckoning on July 29. As promised, the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google testified to the House Judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee on their allegedly dominant positions tech and the possibility that they represent monopolies. It was the first time all four testified at one hearing, and Jeff Bezos’ first congressional testimony.

If you were expecting clear answers, however, you were likely disappointed. For the most part, the hours-long hearing was defined by politicians declaring their agendas, and CEOs repeating familiar statements without providing major new insights.

The tone was set with the companies’ opening statements. Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, and Sundar Pichai all contended that their companies had plenty of competition, including from each other. They also stressed their contributions to the US economy, such as Google’s $90 billion five-year investment in research and Apple’s claimed $138 billion contribution to American commerce. While they didn’t necessarily make any false statements, they were there to provide familiar company messages.

The hearing itself didn’t change much. The companies frequently objected to the “characterization� of their companies as undermining competitors, couldn’t remember specific conversations, and offered post-hearing follow-ups on challenging questions. They were more likely to stick to company lines. Apple reiterated that it offered a “very wide gate� for apps when asked about is ability to exclude apps, for instance, while Facebook repeatedly stressed that acquired companies like Instagram and WhatsApp were both competition and complimentary. Amazon reiterated a refrain that its policies don’t allow misusing third-party seller data.

Read more: Sundar Pichai’s toughest moment as CEO

Google was no exception. Pichai rejected claims that Google stole content from businesses like Yelp, pointing to support for 1.4 million small businesses as evidence. He also responded to concerns about data gathering with known answers, referencing improved privacy controls in recent years, restrictions for underage YouTube viewers (such as YouTube Kids), and an emphasis most data was to help users, not to sell ads. The executive stressed that relevance and knowledge guided search rankings, not the potential for Google to earn money.

Pichai also deferred on claims that Google was creating a “walled garden� where it steered users back to its own products.

The politicians themselves didn’t help matters. As with tech hearings in the past, partisanship on both sides frequently led the hearing off-course with representatives using their time to state their agendas rather than glean answers on competition. The companies had to answer questions about alleged political bias, “cancel culture mobs,� forced labor, and workforce representation. Google even had to face claims that it was assisting Chinese oppression, which it rejected — it noted that it doesn’t offer services in China and conducts local AI research only on open source projects.

It's unclear that the testimony did anything to sway opinions in the House.

The hearing did provide the companies’ official positions on issues, and could influence the subcommittee’s decisions on whether or not more regulation is necessary to curb the power of tech giants.

However, it was difficult to see any fundamentally new revelations. Amazon acknowledged reports that its staff were misusing reseller data, but didn’t have more to share about investigations. Apple’s statements on its App Store policies were well-known. Facebook has already denied threatening companies and acknowledged implementing rivals’ features. Google also clarified its rebuttal to claims that it snooped on Android apps, with Pichai stating that info came from a “public API� that required user consent.

It was also unclear that the testimony did anything to sway opinions in the House. Subcommittee chairman David Cicilline ended the hearing by asserting that all the companies had “monopoly power,� and likened them to modern day versions of the robber barons at the turn of the 20th century. Key representatives were still convinced that these tech firms not only had monopolies, but were actively abusing them. This still doesn’t guarantee new laws regulating the companies, but it may be more a question of when bills reach Congress than whether or not they appear at all.