5 Key Takeaways After Big Tech CEOs Testify in Meandering Antitrust Hearing

Legislators grilled execs from Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon on industry dominance

The CEOs of Alphabet, Amazon, Apple and Facebook testified before Congress Wednesday. Google, Getty images

The CEOs of four of the world’s largest and most influential technology companies testified virtually today before the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, arguing that they are American success stories, not too-big-to-fail corporate behemoths that stifle competition.

The five hours of questioning from lawmakers was at best wide-ranging and at worst completely disorganized and off topic. Democrats largely grilled Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai and Apple’s Tim Cook on antitrust matters, while Republicans focused largely on allegations of political bias against conservatives. 

When on topic, legislators relished a rare opportunity to discuss major corporate acquisitions and press the CEOs on allegations of anticompetitive behavior in their respective product spaces. While the other tech execs had appeared before Congress, it was the first time for Bezos.

Social media market dominance

House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., interrogated Zuckerberg about Facebook’s $1 billion acquisition of Instagram in 2012—specifically his rhetoric in internal emails at the time, which cited the photo-sharing app as a threat. Nadler and other committee members alleged a pattern of anticompetitive behavior whereby Facebook identified companies that could pose a threat to its business and acquired them. New documents released by Congress today show internal emails to Zuckerberg in which its former CFO talks about acquiring companies to “neutralize a competitive threat.” Lawmakers also raised Facebook’s 2014 acquisition of WhatsApp for $19 billion and its attempted purchase of Snapchat in 2013.

“It is a violation of the Sherman Act to buy out a direct competitor to eliminate them as a danger and protect a monopoly; that idea doesn’t seem to be well understood,” tweeted the Columbia Law School professor and internet expert Tim Wu during the hearing.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., also asked Zuckerberg about copying competitors’ features, which Facebook arguably did with Snapchat’s Stories and will do with TikTok’s infinite scroll and video editing features when Instagram Reels comes out this month.

“People want to be able to communicate privately and with all their friends at once,” Zuckerberg said in response. “We’re going to build the best products in all the spaces people want to stay connected with the people they care about.”

Dominance in journalism and advertising

Nadler put pressure on Zuckerberg to acknowledge the influence Facebook’s algorithms have played on news companies’ business models—specifically, that Facebook knowingly inflated video metrics in a bid to win over ad dollars. Zuckerberg denied knowing about the scandal prior to admitting it to advertisers, something initially reported by The Wall Street Journal four years ago. Facebook’s emphasis on video led to a much-discussed “pivot to video” in the news industry and, after Facebook revealed its missteps and deemphasized video in its algorithms, Nadler said, media companies laid off hundreds of journalists.

“Do you realize the harm that caused journalists across the country?” Nadler asked. Zuckerberg disagreed with the characterization, but said he knows “how important it is that the metrics we report are accurate.”

Nadler pressed Pichai to detail Google’s reach by aggregating data across its services. “Use of this data from all these companies gives you a tremendous advantage over them and over any competitor. Does the ability to make money in any way affect Google’s algorithm in terms of what news appears in a typical user’s search result?” Nadler asked. Pichai said Google’s algorithm doesn’t “take into account a commercial relationship.”

Antitrust subcommittee chairman Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., and Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., also brought up Facebook’s struggles to root out hate speech and misinformation on the platform. Raskin mentioned the Stop Hate for Profit advertiser boycott that has targeted Facebook this month.

96 minutes to Bezos

It took 96 minutes for legislators to ask a question of Amazon’s Bezos, but when they did, they grilled him on allegations that the company used third-party seller data to quash competitors. “I can’t guarantee you that policy has never been violated,” Bezos said in a stunning admission. “I’m not yet satisfied we’ve gotten to the bottom of that.”

The committee also asked Apple’s Cook about whether the App Store had a chokehold on the mobile app marketplace. Pichai faced tough questions about Google’s 2006 acquisition of YouTube as well as more recent children’s privacy violations by the online video giant.

‘There’s nothing in the algorithm that pertains to political ideology’

With Facebook in the room, you may be surprised that reply didn’t come from the social media giant. Instead, Pichai gave that response to Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla., a legislator critical of how the company’s email service, Gmail, handled his campaign emails. How did reelection campaign emails they gave as examples end up in the junk folder? “We approach our work in a nonpartisan way,” Pichai said.

Having a political bent, Pichai later said, goes against the company’s “core values.” The exchanges spoke to how legislators took the opportunity to wade into politics and get very specific answers on how their families’ junk folders were being populated.

Other Republican committee members including Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., focused on allegations of political bias.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., asked Zuckerberg why he temporarily suspended Donald Trump, Jr., the president’s son, from the platform for sharing a video with Covid-19 misinformation. Zuckerberg had to correct the ranking member. “To be clear, what you might be referring to happened on Twitter, so it’s hard for me to speak to that,” he said.

Google and DoubleClick

The hearing veered into ad tech when Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., asked Pichai if he could respond to the company’s integration of DoubleClick, an ad network, and how Google used personally identifiable information to grow its reach for marketers.

Pichai said he was “not familiar with the specifics of that particular issue” but was “happy to follow up more once [he] understands it better.”

The questioning led to how Google was complying with GDPR, the EU privacy standard, and other regulatory issues of user privacy. “In all these ecosystems, we are balancing between users, advertisers and publishers,” Pichai said. “We deeply care about the privacy in particular of our users so when we serve these ecosystems, we have to take that into account.”

@ScottNover scott.nover@adweek.com Scott Nover is a platforms reporter at Adweek, covering social media companies and their influence.
@SaraJerde sara.jerde@adweek.com Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.