Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Google parent Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai sat before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law on Wednesday to take questions during an at-times acrimonious hearing related to ongoing antitrust investigations into the power the companies wield over competitors and consumers.
Much of the hearing saw pointed lines of questioning aimed at Bezos, Pichai, and Zuckerberg, with Cook seeming to escape the hours-long meeting with the least damage.
Bezos, who was making his first appearance in front of Congress, received a slew of questions ranging from whether Amazon uses data from third-party sellers to make its own competing products to how it takes on software competitors through its Amazon Web Services.
In one of the more striking moments of the hearing, Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) asked Bezos to comment on a recent story by The Wall Street Journal reporting that Amazon representatives are able to access data by third-party sellers to glean data on their products only to turn around and build their own competing products.
Bezos responded by saying that he could not guarantee that Amazon employees didn’t use that kind of information to create their own competing products. He went on to say that the company is looking into the practice.
Representative Ken Buck (R-CO), meanwhile, questioned Amazon’s alleged practice of hosting counterfeit products, an issue that has been raised in reports, and which Buck said could, in certain cases, lead to serious injury to customers who purchase such goods.
Bezos, however, struck back, saying that Amazon is working to take down counterfeit products and has a division within the company dedicated to removing such items.
Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) said that the committee’s investigation has resulted in “heartbreaking” testimony from sellers who said they were pushed out of business by Amazon’s competing products.
Google and Facebook’s ad empires
Pichai, meanwhile, was repeatedly questioned about his company’s advertising business by Jayapal, as well as Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), with Jayapal equating Google’s control of the digital ad space to “insider trading.”
Google’s dominance of internet search was targeted at length by representatives asking if the company favors its own products in search results, thus hindering competition from smaller businesses, an accusation that’s been made by companies like Yelp and TripAdvisor for years.
Zuckerberg also faced sharp questions about Facebook’s history of acquiring or copying competing businesses, with Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) asking if Facebook’s operations are a “digital land grab” that use the company’s vast resources to purchase competitors in order to maintain its position as a social media behemoth.
The company currently has 2.6 billion users across Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp, and is openly working on features that copy those of rivals Snapchat and TikTok.
Nadler focused on Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram, which the company purchased in 2012 for $1 billion, saying that the move was exactly what antitrust laws were designed to prevent. Nadler’s point, that Facebook saw Instagram as a threat, and as a result moved on it, was echoed by several representatives throughout the roughly 5-hour hearing.
Apple’s App Store controversy
Apple’s Cook saw only a handful of questions from committee members, but was stung particularly hard by Representative Joe Neguse (D-CO), who questioned whether Apple has to abide by the same rules as third-party app developers when it comes to developing apps for the App Store.
When Cook said the company did have to follow the same rules, Neguse revealed documentation showing that while third-party developers can’t copy apps that are already in the App Store, Apple can, giving it an advantage over competitors.
Cook was unable to respond to the line of questioning and said he would get back to Neguse.
Apple’s App Store is being investigated for operating as a monopoly because it requires sellers to pay the firm a 30% cut of all app sales. And since the only way apps can be installed on the iPhone is through the App Store, competitors contend that they are forced to deal with Apple’s demands.
Representatives also touched on a number of topics outside of the planned scope of the hearing, including platform censorship and cooperation with the Chinese government.
Wednesday’s hearing, however, is just one piece of the subcommittee investigation into the four tech giants, and even so it is only one of a number of investigations into the firms by the Department of Justice and state attorneys general.
And despite surviving today’s hearing, there’s still quite a while to go before the companies find out the result of each inquiry.