Big Tech Gets Grilled in Washington

The U.S House of Representatives held an historic hearing on July 29, bringing the four titans of the tech world, Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook, before the committee as the culmination of a year-long investigation into market dominance in tech. As you might expect, the hearing careened across a wide range of issues, and a wide range of ideological lenses, but in between the omnipresent political posturing and the bizarre moments, like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ “tech troubles,” some important and even game-changing facts came to light. 

One of the most notable interchanges was between Seattle Representative Pramila Jayapal and Bezos. In an aggressive line of questioning, Jayapal honed in on Amazon’s use of third party seller data to clone the products and undercut the prices of any and all competition, in a global expansion of the cutthroat tactics the online retailer used to decimate the independent bookstore sector years ago. Bezos was forced to admit that “rules may have been violated” and that he would look into it, although of course he developed the playbook. 

Questioning of Apple’s Tim Cook largely focused on the Apple Store, the app marketplace for the IOS operating system. The Apple store has long been tightly controlled, and third party app developers have long complained of policies that hamper their profits and products. 

Google, somewhat strangely, became the whipping post for the committee’s Republicans, whose focus was on search and email. As is often the case in tech hearings on the Hill, Republican lawmakers, at least some of them, often reveal a significant lack of understanding of how technology works. One Republican lawmaker complained of his campaign emails going to the spam folder of his supporters, suggesting darkly that Google somehow tagged his emails due to him being a Republican. The lawmaker seemed unaware of bulk email sender authentication protocols, and, in the culmination of his comments, complained that  his own father found his campaign emails in a gmail promotions folders. Others complained that their blogs appeared on the second or third page of search due to Republican-hating algorithms. In many ways, the questioning of Google was a lost opportunity since it didn’t address the antitrust problems that Google’s dominance of the search engine market really presents. 

The main attraction for this website was Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg took some hard questions about the social media platform’s purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp, since the purchase and acquisition of all direct competitors is a focus of antitrust law. Materials requested by the committee contained communications among WhatsApp and Instagram management at the time of the deals, and the correspondence made it clear that the “purchases” more closely resembled hostile takeovers. Instagram wrote “If we say no, will he go into destruct mode?”

At the close of the almost six-hour hearing, antitrust committee chair David Ciccilione (D-RI) mentioned the antitrust nuclear detonator“structural separation”which implies that companies that have grown too big and have acquired too much dominance over multiple avenues of a supply chain could face mandatory breakup at the hands of a regulator. While it remains to be seen what, if any, legislation or proposals will come out of the committee, there is no question that “Big Tech” goes to Washington was an interrogationand one that the tech powerhouses did not come out of unscathed. 

For the play by play, check out the Twitter hashtag #BigTechonBlast with live commentary from a plethora of consumer, Internet and technology groups.