Big tech CEOs – collect ’em all.
Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, Tim Cook and Jeff Bezos (making his first appearance before Congress) convened virtually on Wednesday for a historic hearing hosted by the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust delving into the market power of online platforms.
The hearing (which was ironically livestreamed on Google-owned YouTube) is the culmination of an ongoing bipartisan investigation launched by the subcommittee in June of last year examining competition, or the lack thereof, in the digital markets.
The subcommittee, which has collected millions of pages of evidence, emails and documents from Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon, is also looking into whether existing antitrust laws are sufficient to govern big tech companies.
‘Emperors of online commerce’
Rep. Dave Cicilline, D-RI, kicked off the hearing by calling out the “common patterns” of anticompetitive behavior among big tech platforms that he and his fellow lawmakers have uncovered during the course of their investigation.
One: Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon are, each in their own way, a “bottleneck for a key channel of distribution” with “the incentive and ability to exploit this power,” Cicilline said.
Two: Each has used its control and power over digital infrastructure to “surveil other companies” that might pose a competitive threat and then to subsequently buy, copy or crush their rivals, he said.
And, lastly: All four have extended their power through predatory pricing and/or preferencing their own products.
“Our founders would not bow before a king,” Cicilline said. “We should now bow before the emperors of online commerce.”
It was the first of many zingers. Here are some of the best questions lawmakers landed during the more than five-hour-long hearing.
Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-ND: “In order to comply with GDPR, Google must retain control over more user data and restrict the ability to combine this user data with other platforms to conduct cross-platform analysis. It seems as if that ultimately limits the ability of advertisers to make comparisons between Google-based campaigns and non-Google-based campaigns. Do you agree with that?”
Sundar Pichai, CEO, Google: “In all these ecosystems, we are balancing between users, advertisers and publishers. We deeply care about the privacy and security of our users, and so when we serve these ecosystems, we have to take that into account. We have to comply with important laws and regulations in every country we operate in.”
- Context: In 2018, Google stopped allowing buyers to use the DoubleClick ID for data transfers from its ad server and pulled the DoubleClick ID from its DSP in Europe, citing GDPR.
Rep. Armstrong: “After Google stopped allowing third parties to buy YouTube ads via AdX, Google limited the interoperability of third-party analytics on YouTube. You now require the use of Ads Data Hub … regardless of whether the intent was to lessen competition or not, the action resulted in smaller competitors unable to participate in placing ads on YouTube, isn’t that correct?”
Pichai: “This is consistent with how today, many services, be it Facebook or Snapchat or Pinterest – you work with their ads tools to buy ads on their properties.”
- Context: In 2015, Google started restricting third parties from buying YouTube inventory, thereby giving DV360 exclusive access to the world’s largest marketplace for digital video.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.: “Does Amazon ever access and use third-party seller data when making business decisions?”
Jeff Bezos, CEO, Amazon: “We have a policy against using seller-specific data to aid our private-label business. But I can’t guarantee you that policy has never been violated.”
- Context: The Wall Street Journal published a story in April claiming that Amazon employees have used their access to sales data from independent third-party sellers when developing Amazon’s own private-label brands.
Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga.: “As part of this investigation we’ve interviewed many small businesses and they used words like ‘bullying,’ ‘fear,’ and ‘panic’ to describe their relationship with Amazon … what do you have to say to the small businesses who are talking to Congress because you simply won’t listen to them?”
Bezos: “Well, I would say that is not acceptable. If we’re not listening to you, I’m not happy about that at all.”
Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-NY: “The documents you provided tell a very disturbing story, that Facebook saw Instagram as a powerful threat that could siphon business away from Facebook. So, rather than compete with it, Facebook bought it. … This is exactly the kind of anticompetitive action that the antitrust laws were designed to prevent.”
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO, Facebook: “I’ve always been clear that we viewed Instagram as both a competitor and as a complement to our services.”
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga: “Throughout our investigation, we’ve heard concerns that the rules governing the App Store review process are not available to app developers; that the rules are made up as you go, arbitrarily interpreted and enforced and subject to change whenever Apple sees fit. And developers have no choice but to go along with the changes or leave the App Store. Does Apple not treat all app developers equally?”
Tim Cook, CEO, Apple: “We treat every developer the same. We have open and transparent rules. It’s a rigorous process, because we care so deeply about quality, privacy and security.”
So, what’s next?
The subcommittee will publish a report on the findings of its investigation and “propose solutions to the problems before us,” said Cicilline, who adjourned the hearing with some fighting words.
“This hearing has made one fact clear to me,” he said. “These companies as they exist today have monopoly power. Some need to be broken up – all need to be properly regulated and held accountable. And we need to ensure the antitrust laws first written more than a century ago work in the digital age.”
In other news, the Department of Justice is also reportedly close to completing its own probe into anti-competitive behavior on the part of Google.