Four CEOs of the biggest technology firms appeared virtually, as expected, before a US Congress hearing on antitrust issues on Wednesday.

The video conference hearing was the first time the four CEOs, including Tim Cook (Apple), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), and Sundar Pichai, CEO of both Alphabet and Google, have appeared together before US lawmakers.

The hearing was also notable as it was the first time that the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos appeared before US lawmakers, despite Amazon initially appearing reluctant to making its CEO available.

Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos

Antitrust hearing

The House of Representatives’ judiciary committee had launched a probe into digital markets and “anti-competitive conduct” in the tech industry back in June 2019.

The judiciary committee wanted to “document competition problems” and sought to assess “whether existing antitrust laws, competition policies and current enforcement levels are adequate to address these issues”.

Jeff Bezos for his part said the world “needs large” firms, while the heads of Facebook, Apple and Google argued their companies had spurred innovation.

But according to Reuters, all four firms faced harsh criticism for having “too much power” and engaged in unfair practices to harm competition.

The chairman of panel holding the hearing reportedly said afterwards that the four CEOs had acknowledged concerning behaviour.

“What we heard from witnesses at the hearing confirmed the evidence that we have collected over the last year,” Chairman David Cicilline, a Democrat, told Reuters.

Facebook, Google targetted

And according to media reports, most of the barbed exchanges were aimed at Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai.

Cicilline set the tone for the hearing when he began by accusing Google of theft.

“Why does Google steal content from honest businesses?” he asked.

He alleged Google stole reviews from Yelp Inc and threatened to delist Yelp from search results if it objected.

Pichai responded that he would want to know the specifics of the accusation.

“We conduct ourselves to the highest standards,” he added, disagreeing with the characterisation.

Pichai also took a lot of other barbs from conservatives on the panel, and he repeatedly told lawmakers he would be happy to look into various situations and get back to them.

Cicilline said a year-long investigation showed the firms “wielded their power in destructive, harmful ways in order to expand,” and said that he was convinced the firms were monopolies and called for action.

Facebook questioning

Zuckerberg meanwhile seemed to come off the worse of the big four, and he reportedly stumbled at times when confronted with internal emails.

Zuckerberg faced a number of questions about the purchase of Instagram in 2012 and whether it was acquired because it was a threat, as Zuckerberg had dubbed it in an email obtained by the committee.

Zuckerberg responded that Instagram at the time was a tiny photo-sharing app rather than a social-media phenomenon.

In one of the more notable exchanges, Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat, was reported by Reuters as pushing Zuckerberg on whether Facebook had ever copied its competitors. “We’ve certainly adapted features that others have led in,” he said.

“How many companies did Facebook end up copying?” she asked. “Is it less than five? Less than 50?”

“Congresswoman, I don’t know,” Zuckerberg said.

Apple, Amazon

Tim Cook fielded some questions on the charges it gains from its App Store, and Amazon’s Bezos appeared the least unfazed of the four CEOs by the lawmakers.

Indeed, Bezos was absent for an hour of the hearing due to a technical issue, and both him and Zuckerberg were filmed snacking on food during the hearing.

On the whole it seems as though Democrats pressed mostly about competition issues, whereas Republicans were more concerned about information was managed and whether tech firms have discriminated against conservatives.

Going forward, a detailed report with antitrust allegations against the four tech platforms and recommendations on how to tame their market power could be released by late summer or early Autumn by the committee, Reuters reported senior committee aides as saying.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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