Tech titans in spotlight at US antitrust hearing

WASHINGTON (AFP) – United States (US) lawmakers grilled the chiefs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google yesterday about how they wield marketplace power in what promises to be a rare political spectacle.

The House of Representatives hearing came amid rising concerns over Big Tech dominance, which has become even more pronounced during the coronavirus pandemic.

The unprecedented joint appearance before the House Judiciary Committee features Tim Cook of Apple, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sundar Pichai of Google and its parent firm Alphabet.

The CEOs of four of the world’s most powerful companies will testify remotely, less than 100 days before the US election.

It was the first time Bezos testified before a congressional committee. The world’s richest man will paint online giant Amazon as an example of US entrepreneurship.

“I believe Amazon should be scrutinised,” Bezos said in prepared remarks posted online, defiantly adding that “when you look in the mirror, assess the criticism, and still believe you’re doing the right thing, no force in the world should be able to move you.”

FROM TOP LEFT: Google CEO Sundar Pichai; Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg; and Apple CEO Tim Cook. PHOTO: AP

Zuckerberg called social media colossus Facebook a “proudly American company” in prepared marks ahead of the hearing.

“Our story would not have been possible without US laws that encourage competition and innovation,” he said.

But, he is to say, the rules of the Internet need updating.

Pichai will highlight how Alphabet is helping America remain a technology leader in the face of growing competition.

Cook will say scrutiny is “reasonable and appropriate” but that Apple will make “no concession on the facts.”

Apple does not have a dominant position in any market, and the iPhone faces fierce competition, according to Cook’s prepared remarks.

The hearing is part of a congressional probe into “online platforms and market power” and takes place against a backdrop of antitrust investigations in the US, Europe and elsewhere.

“The Street will be laser focussed on this next step in the Big Tech vs Beltway UFC battle,” Wedbush analyst Daniel Ives said in a recent note to investors.

“Will this be a grandstanding event with minimal substance or a potential Fort Sumter moment for the anti-trust momentum against tech stalwarts?” he wrote, referring to the opening salvo of the US Civil War.

Avery Gardiner, an antitrust expert at the Centre for Democracy & Technology, said the hearing will offer a timely focus on key issues around competition and concentration of economic power.

“People are feeling frustrated with the way our society is organised, and antitrust is one tool to go after powerful companies,” she said. Current US antitrust laws make it difficult for enforcers to target companies simply for being large or dominant without also showing harm to consumers or abuse of market power.

Because of that, “the real purpose of the hearing is theatrical, and tied to the politicians’ electoral interests,” said Christopher Sagers, a law professor specialising in antitrust at Cleveland State University.

The tech company chiefs will stress how they benefit consumers, particularly during the pandemic, and face competition – particularly from China.

The antitrust debate is being muddied by rising “techlash” over a range of issues from privacy to economic inequality to political bias.

Social media giants face attacks for allegedly using their dominance to stifle conservative views – a claim made by US President Donald Trump.

Facebook has also been accused of failing to curb hateful content promoting violence, including posts from Trump.

Any effort to use antitrust laws to enforce free speech would run into constitutional concerns, raising the specter of a “government censor,” according to Sagers.

“My fear is that members of Congress will have a hard time sticking to antitrust, and we’ll hear a lot of questions about privacy, content moderation, worker conditions,” said Gardiner.

Facebook could come under scrutiny for its acquisition of nascent rivals, which critics say squelches competition and increases its dominance of social media.