ceos grilled

Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks via video conference during the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law hearing on Online Platforms and Market Power in the Rayburn House office Building, July 29, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images)

NEW YORK – Four big tech CEOs — Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Indian American Sundar Pichai of Google, and Tim Cook of Apple – pushed back against accusations during a Congressional panel hearing capping a yearlong investigation into these companies' market domination online.

Amid intense grilling on issues that centered on market power derived from uninhibited collection and access to data, all four CEOs focused their attention on the value of their innovations and services to consumers. They testified via video link to lawmakers in Washington, DC.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai struggled to deflect accusations of anti-conservative bias and retreated multiple times to a "Happy to engage with you" answer in response to questions that went deep into the working of the company's mighty algorithms.

Pichai squirmed when asked whether he signed off on the company's 2016 decision to merge data from the advertising company Double Click – bought in 2007 – with Google's own data. Rep. Val Demings described this move as one that effectively "destroyed users' anonymity" on the internet.

"I reviewed at a high level all the important decisions we make," Pichai said. He talked about how Google "cares" about the privacy and security of users and noted that Google no longer uses data from Gmail for ad targeting, a relatively recent change.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos repeatedly offered "I don't remember" or "We are looking into it" as an answer to lawmaker concerns about how the company might be killing off small businesses, poaching ideas from competitors or employee testimony that there is "nobody enforcing" policies in a company that has become a "candy shop" of seller data.

For years, Amazon has been dogged by allegations that it uses its dominance to identify and enter into new product categories using its unique lens into inside information on third party seller data.

Pushed on this question by Indian American Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who represents the district in which Amazon is headquartered, Bezos sidestepped saying he could not answer yes or no. "I can tell you we have a policy against using seller-specific data to aid our private label business but I can't guarantee you that that policy has never been violated."

Facebook CEO Zuckerberg faced fire over the company's acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp, a pervasive strategy of copying competitors' features, selling user data to third parties and the forest fire analogy of how fake news and conspiracy theories go wild on the mighty platform.

In his responses, Zuckerberg admitted that Facebook has "certainly adapted features that others have led in" but countered that the company's moves were not anti-competitive.

"I have always been clear that we viewed Instagram as both a competitor and as a complement to our services," Zuckerberg said.

The Facebook's CEO used his time during opening remarks to knock competitors. "In many areas, we are behind our competitors," he said.

"The most popular messaging service in the U.S. is iMessage. The fastest growing app is TikTok. The most popular app for video is YouTube. The fastest growing ads platform is Amazon. The largest ads platform is Google."

Apple CEO Tim Cook contended that his company does not have a dominant market share "in any market where we do business" and prioritizes the quality of product versus scale.

Apple, whose iPhone is the world's third-largest selling phone, is facing EU investigations over fees charged by its App Store and technical blockades that allegedly shut out competitors to Apple Pay.

Cook said, "In the more than a decade since the App Store debuted, we have never raised the commission or added a single fee. In fact, we have reduced them for subscriptions and exempted additional categories of apps. The App Store evolves with the times, and every change we have made has been in the direction of providing a better experience for our users and a compelling business opportunity for developers."

Associated Press adds from Washington: Congressional lawmakers finally got a chance to grill the CEOs of Big Tech over their dominance and allegations of monopolistic practices that stifle competition. But it’s unclear how much they advanced their goal of bringing some of the world’s largest companies to heel.

Invective flew July 29 as legislators questioned Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Google’s Sundar Pichai and Apple’s Tim Cook at a hearing of the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust. For the last year, that panel has probed the business practices of the Silicon Valley giants with an eye to determining if they need to be regulated more heavily or even broken up.

In nearly five hours of testimony and questioning, however, there were few startling revelations or striking confrontations. While the executives faced hostile questioning and frequent interruptions from lawmakers of both parties, little seemed to land more than glancing blows.

The execs provided lots of data purporting to show how much competition they face and how valuable their innovation and essential services are to consumers. But they sometimes struggled to answer pointed questions about their business practices. They also confronted a range of other concerns about alleged political bias, their effect on U.S. democracy and their role in China.

The panel’s chairman, Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, said each platform controlled by Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple “is a bottleneck for a key channel of distribution.”

“Simply put: They have too much power.”

The four CEOs command corporations whose products are woven into the fabric of everyday life, with millions or even billions of customers, and a combined market value greater than the entire German economy.

And they had a few rough moments. Pichai and Zuckerberg appeared discomfited when pressed about unsavory aspects of their companies’ businesses but got respites when their inquisitors ran out of time. Bezos also acknowledged that alleged misdeeds at Amazon — such as reports that the company has used data generated by independent sellers on its platform to compete against them — would be “unacceptable” if proved to be true.

Among the toughest questions for Google and Amazon involved accusations that they used their dominant platforms to scoop up data about competitors in a way that gave them an unfair advantage.

Pichai deployed an old Washington trick — appealing to the specific interests of legislators. In his opening remarks, he touted Google’s value to mom-and-pop businesses in Bristol, Rhode Island, and Pewaukee, Wisconsin, which just happen to be located in the home districts of Cicilline and Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the panel’s senior Republican.

But the Google executive struggled as Cicilline accused the company of leveraging its dominant search engine to steal ideas and information from other websites and manipulating its results to drive people to its own digital services to boost its profits.

Pichai repeatedly deflected Cicilline’s attacks by asserting that Google tries to provide the most helpful and relevant information to the hundreds of millions of people who use its search engine each day in an effort to keep them coming back instead of defecting to a rival service, such as Microsoft’s Bing.

(Liedtke reported from San Ramon, California, and O’Brien from Providence, Rhode Island. AP Business Writer Joseph Pisani in New York contributed to this report.)

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