Held virtually amid the coronavirus outbreak, the hearing marked the first time the four executives had spoken to Congress as a group.
The hearing, which is the culmination of Congress’ year-long probe into competition in the digital market, proved especially tough for the executives from the get-go, with antitrust subcommittee chairman David Cicilline kicking off the proceedings by saying that just like the way the Founding Fathers would not bow before a king, nor would Congress – and the American people – bow before what he called “emperors of the online economy.”
In his statement, Rhode Island Representative Cicilline raised the possibility that Big Tech – the collective name for the four companies – could consolidate even more power during the coronavirus pandemic, adding that it is important for authorities to confront monopolies so that they do not crush other businesses.
Armed with internal corporate emails, as well as the results of interviews with the heads of smaller companies who said they were harmed by anti-competitive practices, Congress grilled Zuckerberg, Bezos, Cook and Pichai about several important issues, such as content theft and the aggressive copying and purchasing of competing businesses.
In addition, the executives were also questioned about their companies’ connections to China, as well as their commitment to preserving freedom of expression. (Related: OBEY OR BE SILENCED: Google now ranking the “truthiness” of websites on the coronavirus to determine ad eligibility.)
The executives, during the hearing, primarily rejected the premise of the questions, most of which almost uniformly portrayed the American companies as monopolistic, dangerous, unpatriotic and ruthless.
Zuckerberg, for his part, faced a series of questions about Facebook’s acquisition strategies and was grilled for allegedly conspiring to take out social media platform Instagram.
According to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, Zuckerberg described the image-sharing platform as a “threat” that can hurt Facebook’s place in cyberspace “meaningfully,” quoting an email sent by the latter well before his company's acquisition of the popular social media platform in 2012.
“Facebook, by its own admission ... saw Instagram as a threat,” Nadler said during the hearing, noting that rather than competing with the then-emerging startup, Facebook just made the decision to go out and buy it.
“This is exactly the type of anti-competitive acquisition the antitrust laws were designed to prevent,” Nadler said.
Zuckerberg, however, rebutted Nadler, noting that the Federal Trade Commission or FTC has already obtained documents related to Facebook’s corporate acquisitions when they reviewed it for compliance with existing antitrust laws.
Stemming from issues surrounding his acquisition of the then-nascent Instagram, Zuckerberg also found himself in a corner after being asked by Washington Democrat Pramila Jayapal if Facebook indeed copied features pioneered by its competitors.
"Do you copy your competitors?" Jayapal asked, after quoting internal company emails in which Facebook’s executives discussed plans to prevent smaller companies from gaining a foothold against the social media giant.
The Facebook CEO answered in the affirmative, noting that the social media platform adapted “features that others have introduced." Zuckerberg, however, could not give a definite figure when asked about the number of companies Facebook has copied.
Much like Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos also received a tongue-lashing from Congress over its purportedly sketchy business practices, among which were the machinations behind its 2011 acquisition of the online store Diapers.com.
According to Pennsylvania Representative Mary Gay Scanlon, Amazon resorted to unscrupulous practices in order to acquire the company.
Scanlon, during the hearing, noted that while Diapers.com did not want to be purchased initially, it was forced to do so after Amazon aggressively cut prices on baby products on its own site, which led to a slowdown on sales at Diapers.com.
Amazon shut down the service several years later.
Bezos, who, in earlier emails spoke about pursuing small companies "the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle," denied having any memory of that incident.
"I don't remember that at all," Bezos said.
According to Scanlon, there is a distinct possibility that the prices of essential items could be driven up by Bezos’ tactics.
Representative Jim Jordan, from Ohio, tore into the tech executives during the hearing, condemning what he said is Big Tech's purported mission "to get conservatives."
"That’s not a suspicion, that’s not a hunch. That’s a fact," Jordan said, rattling off a laundry list of suspected behavior from the companies in question, such as Google’s removal of Breitbart articles from search results, Facebook’s routine censorship of conservative views, banning of pro-life advertisements and removal of Trump campaign posts, Amazon's temporary banning of an e-book critical of COVID-19 lockdowns by conservative journalist Alex Berenson and Google and YouTube's censorship of health-related content that don't align with directives approved by the World Health Organization.
Representative Matt Gaetz, during his turn, grilled Zuckerberg about Facebook’s purported bias against conservatives, referring to the firing of former Facebook employee Palmer Luckey after the latter – who sold his virtual reality headset company Oculus to Facebook in 2014 – was found to have given USD 10,000 to an organization that opposed Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“When you fire people as a consequence of their politics, do you think that impacts the culture and perhaps empowers some of the content moderators to also treat people worse as a consequence of their politics?” Gaetz, a Republican from Florida, asked.
Zuckerberg, however, denied that he did this, noting in his rebuttal that he had nothing to do with Luckey’s removal from the company.
Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, meanwhile, sparred with Zuckerberg over the issue of free speech, with the Wisconsin Republican asking Zuckerberg to present evidence that his company does not discriminate against or suppress conservative views.
"The way the net was put together, in the eyes of Congress, is that everybody should be able to speak their mind," Sensenbrenner said.
Sensenbrenner, during the hearing, also asked Zuckerberg to explain the company's purported removal of a post by Donald Trump Jr. that promoted hydroxychloroquine as a possible treatment option for COVID-19.
The above incident, however, as noted by Zuckerberg, actually happened on Twitter.
“I think what you might be referring to happened on Twitter. So, it's hard for me to speak to that," Zuckerberg replied, adding that while Facebook does ban posts that point to alleged cures for the deadly disease, the social network itself does not prohibit discussion of drug trials.
Among the executives, however, it was Alphabet’s Pichai who was put to task with answering questions about Big Tech’s political meddling.
Pichai, during the meeting, found himself grilled by Ohio Representative Jordan over Google’s supposed meddling in the 2016 elections, with the latter citing two leaked videos as proof.
One of the videos cited by Jordan during the hearing was an undercover exposé in which Google executives explained how they planned to undermine Trump and influence the 2016 election. The other was footage of Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page lamenting President Trump’s victory at a meeting of Google executives, with the two vowing not to make “the same mistake” again.
Jordan, during the hearing, also cited a 2016 e-mail to Google execs that referred to a “silent donation” the company had made to the Clinton campaign, before asking Pichai if there is a possibility that Google will skew its search engine results to give preference in the November election to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, compared with President Trump.
“Can you assure Americans today you won’t tailor your features to help Joe Biden in the upcoming election?” Jordan, whose campaign has also been funded by Google since 2012, asked.
Pichai, however, denied any partisanship and noted that he and the company are both committed to preserving fairness.
“We approach our work – we support both campaigns today. I think political ads are an important part of free speech and democratic societies,” Pichai stated, noting that the company will not “politically tilt” any of its work as that is against its core values.
Gaetz, meanwhile, mentioned in the hearing several accusations against Google, including one by Facebook investor Peter Thiel. These accusations, according to Gaetz, centered on the company’s purported work with the Chinese military as well as the alleged existence of a Google artificial intelligence (AI) center in China.
These rumors, Gaetz said, call into question the company’s commitment to America and its values.
Pichai, however, said the company – which abandoned several projects linked to the Pentagon including one that aims to analyze drone data using artificial intelligence – does not work with the Chinese military, and that compared to its peers, their presence in China is “very limited in nature.”