SAN JOSE (CBS SF/AP) — Four CEOs of the biggest and most influential tech companies took the hot seat Wednesday, testifying to lawmakers during a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on antitrust issues.
Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Tim Cook of Apple and Google’s parent company Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai were answering questions about whether they’re too dominant, suppressing competition and hurting consumers.
Among the complaints are that Amazon has dominance over e-commerce, Facebook has control over Instagram and Whatsapp among other apps, Apple has dominance over the app store and Google has an overwhelming share of internet searches.
Panel chairman Rep. David Cicilline accused Google 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. He said this is part of its effort to keep them coming back instead of defecting to a rival service, such as Microsoft’s Bing.
Pichai struggled to answer one question about whether Google threatened to dump Yelp from its search engine database after the restaurant review site told Google to stop scraping its site for content. Yelp raised that issue about a decade ago before Pichai became CEO in 2015.
“Congress, not the courts, agencies or private companies enacted the antitrust laws,” Rep. Cicilline said. “And Congress must be responsible for determining whether they are equipped for the competition problems of our modern economy.”
Facebook internal company documents were deployed against Zuckerberg by lawmakers asserting that the company has gobbled up rivals to squelch competition.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the Democrat who heads the House Judiciary Committee, told Zuckerberg that documents obtained from the company “tell a very disturbing story” of Facebook’s acquisition of the Instagram messaging service.
He said the documents show Zuckerberg called Instagram a threat that could “meaningfully hurt” Facebook.
Zuckerberg responded that Facebook viewed Instagram as both a competitor and a “complement” to Facebook’s services, but also acknowledged that it competed with Facebook on photo-sharing. Some critics of Facebook have called for the company to divest Instagram and its WhatsAPP messaging service.
Apple was also put on the defensive over the social network’s role as a conduit for Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, brought the issue current with concerns that right-wing groups are using Facebook to infiltrate the Black Lives Matter movement and to spread anti-Semitic propaganda.
Zuckerberg said Facebook uses sophisticated technology to intercept hate speech, often before it’s seen on the platform. “It hurts our business,” he said.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos told lawmakers he can’t guarantee that the company isn’t accessing seller data to make competing products, an allegation that the company and its executives had previously denied.
Regulators in the U.S. and Europe have been scrutinizing Amazon’s relationship with the businesses that sell on its site and whether the online shopping giant has been using data from the sellers to create its own private-label products.
“We have a policy against using seller specific data to aid our private label business,” said Bezos, in a response to a question from Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Amazon’s home state of Washington. “But I can’t guarantee to you that that policy hasn’t been violated.”
A Wall Street Journal article from April quoted Amazon employees who said they did have access to seller data to make competing products, including a car trunk organizer that Amazon copied.
Bezos said he was aware of the article and is still looking into the allegations.
“I’m still not satisfied that we’ve gotten to the bottom of it,” he said.
“All of them will get out their violins and play a really sad song,” said president and CEO of Joint Venture Silicon Valley Russell Hancock. “Life isn’t easy just because you’re big, you continue to face competitive pressures, so they will make that case and I’m sure they will make it very effectively.”
One San Jose State technology professor says the hearings could lead to antitrust cases against the companies, which now have the immense power that comes from owning user’s data.
“These companies can use their dominant positions in the market and their ability to collect data to stifle competition,” said Etienne Brown, Assistant Professor of Philosophy of Technology.
In prepared testimony. Bezos argued that large companies are necessary in the world, while Zuckerberg argued that his other apps have been able to tackle spam and harmful content with Facebook’s teams.
“The American tradition is that, ‘big is bad,’ we don’t like people to have control,” Hancock said. “The wrinkle here is that the product that Facebook is providing is actually free and so we’re not talking about price-gouging or any of those things that we talk about very often when you’re breaking up a trust or a monopoly.”
© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.