High-level politicians in America put the head honchos of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google under the scanner as they grilled them about their clout in a long hearing. Lasting well over 5 hours, the hearing yesterday is bound to go down in history for trying to put the leash on the four biggest companies in the world, whether it has an impact or not only time can tell.
However, we doff our hats to the members of the committee who were relentless in their questioning on antitrust and monopoly concerns. Of course, the chief executives of Big Tech made talked about “co-operation” and “compliance” without really committing to anything specific. But that didn’t deter most of the politicians from raising pertinent issues about the power that Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon wield individually and collectively. The fact that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world – and his wealth exploded to $150 billion since the pandemic began – should give you some idea. Another man at the hearing, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, is himself the fourth richest person in the world according to Forbes. However, it’s not their personal wealth that’s in question but the power these tech platforms yield over every aspect of modern life.
The politicians hit them with a heavy-duty arsenal of evidence, explosive e-mails, internal company policy documents, revelations from former employees, statements by owners of small businesses they are buying out.
Yesterday’s hearing will be followed by the subcommittee presenting its final report. It has been investigating various complaints against these platforms for the past 12 months. The report will put together the findings of the investigation and take the CEO statements into account.
Some of the hardest questions were posed to Amazon CEO Bezos. Company e-mail interactions from 2009 showed how Amazon deliberately sold diapers at a loss to put rival Diapers.com out of business and force the smaller company to be taken over by Amazon, after which the prices for diapers immediately shot up on his shopping platform. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that selling products at a loss for a short term to drive out competition is illegal.
Congressmen and congresswomen also questioned Bezos on the ill-treatment of third party sellers who are called “Amazon partners”. Bezos admitted to congresswoman Ms. Jayapal that he can’t “say for sure” if his company didn’t violate its policy against using third-party seller data to market Amazon’s own products. Apple was also pulled up by another congressman for mistreating app developers who want to gain iPhone customers through its App Store.
Facebook took the heat for buying out rivals to establish dominance. Cases in point: Instagram and Whatsapp. The panel dug into a series of rich email exchanges between Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives to do this. While one 2012 email had him talk about how companies could be “disruptive to us” if they grew to a large scale, another email Zuckerberg sent on the same day Facebook bought Instagram, said: “Instagram was our threat… one thing about startups though is you can often acquire them.” Democrat Joe Neguse quoted Facebook’s CFO in a 2014 email that their acquisition strategy was a “land grab”.
Congresswoman Val Demings pointed out that when Google purchased the publisher-side digital ad company DoubleClick in 2007, it promised never to merge its own data on Google users with DoubleClick’s data. However, 10 years later Google ignored that promise to the American government and combined user data anyway, “essentially destroying anonymity” in cyberspace. Pichai replied with some vague lines about making things simpler for customers. Of course, Google had grown so much in those 10 years that it probably didn’t care. Since that move in 2016, it has no rival in the online world.
“In 2007, Google’s founders feared making this change because they knew it would upset their users—but in 2016 Google didn’t seem to care.”
– Congresswoman Val Demings
The thought has crossed people’s minds that in a capitalist economy, companies can get so big that they absorb competition and become a monopoly while simultaneously caring about what the customer wants. Silicon Valley companies have the size and clout to do that. So does Adani which pretty much did the same in India with the inflated electricity bills. Neither were there any consequences for Adani Electricity nor did any PIL bring reimbursement for middle-class families struggling in the pandemic.
However, the American government look serious about regulating tech giants from turning into omnipotent entities with unlimited power and zero culpability. Yesterday’s hearing was a milestone for the investigation into antitrust charges against Big Tech. The subcommittee is expected to present its final report in the next two months. It will bear explosive insights. How those findings will bring transparency and level the corporate playing field is what we want to see.