Politics

A few of the big questions Big Tech CEOs didn’t answer

Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai and Tim Cook all promised they'd "look into" many questions from lawmakers.

Jeff Bezos drinking tea

The CEOs answered many questions during Wednesday's hearing, but a few big ones remained unanswered.

Photo: Graeme Jennings-Pool/Getty Images

When Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress last year, he was mocked for the sheer number of times he promised he'd "get back to" lawmakers about questions that he said he didn't know the answer to.

Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai and Jeff Bezos answered many questions directly during Wednesday's antitrust hearing in the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee. But there were still plenty of questions that the CEOs pledged they'd get to later or declined to answer altogether.

Here's just a few of them.

'Isn't that anti-competitive?'

Rep. David Cicilline, the chairman of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, came out swinging against Google during his first round of questioning, pressing Pichai over how Google treated restaurant review website Yelp.

Cicilline quoted documents in which Google threatened to delist Yelp entirely after Yelp complained the search giant was stealing its content.

"Isn't that anti-competitive?" Cicilline asked.

"Congressman, uh, when I run the company, I'm really focused on giving users what they want," Pichai said. "I'm happy to engage and understand the specifics, and answer your questions further."

'You were referring to companies like Instagram in that quote, weren't you?'

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler cited internal documents as he accused Facebook of acquiring Instagram in order to "neutralize a potential competitor." In a 2012 email obtained by the committee, Zuckerberg wrote, "One thing about startups is you can often acquire them."

"You were referring to companies like Instagram in that quote, weren't you?"

"Congressman, I don't have the exact document in front of me," Zuckerberg said, before launching into an explanation of Facebook's thinking about Instagram at the time.

The effects of GDPR

Rep. Kelly Armstrong, one of the few Republicans who focused on antitrust during questioning, pressed Pichai over how Google has been complying with privacy laws in Europe.

"I'm not familiar with the specifics of that question," Pichai said.

"You're not familiar with how you're complying with GDPR?" Armstrong asked.

Silencing conservatives

Rep. Greg Steube launched into a lengthy monologue about his concerns that Google was not serving him conservative publication The Gateway Pundit.

"Was there anything done at Google … that has changed your approach to silencing conservative websites?" Steube asked.

"On the specific issue, I will have to look into it — I obviously wasn't aware of it," Pichai said.

"Can I expect a response from you in the next two weeks?" Steube asked.

"Congressman, we'll do our best to follow up and I'll engage with your office," Pichai pledged.

Diapers.com

Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon cited internal documents that showed Amazon sought to crush Diapers.com after identifying them as a serious rival on its online retail platform.

"How much money was Amazon ultimately able to lose on this campaign to undermine Diapers.com?" Scanlon asked.

"Thank you for the question — I don't know the direct answer to your question, this is going back in time 10 or 11 years or so," Bezos said.

"Do you think this is an acceptable way to treat someone?"

Rep. Lucky McBath played audio from an Amazon seller who said Amazon started retaliating against her small family company "with no warning."

"After Amazon delisted this small business without any apparent reason or notice, she told us they sent more than 500 separate notifications to Amazon, including to you, Mr. Bezos, over the last year and received not a single meaningful response," McBath said. "Do you think this is an acceptable way to treat someone you described as both a partner and a customer?"

"I appreciate you showing me that anecdote," Bezos said, striking the conciliatory tone that he leaned on throughout the hearing. "I'd like to talk to her. It does not at all to me seem like the right way to treat her, and I'm surprised by that."

"I don't understand, but I would like to understand it better and with your permission, I'd like to get in touch with your office," Bezos said.

How Zuckerberg treated Evan Spiegel

Rep. Pramila Jayapal accused Zuckerberg of telling Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel that he was copying aspects of his app while attempting to buy Snapchat.

Jayapal asked, "Did you warn Evan Spiegel, the founder of Snapchat, that Facebook was in the process of cloning the features of his company while also attempting to buy Snapchat?"

"I don't remember those specific conversations," Zuckerberg said.

Will HBO Max be available on Amazon's Fire device?

Rep. Jamie Raskin said consumers are wondering when HBO Max will be available on Amazon's Fire device. "Is it fair to use your gatekeeper status role in the streaming device market to promote your position as a competitor in the video-streaming market with respect to content?" Raskin asked.

"I'm not with the details of those negotiations," Bezos said. "They're underway right now. I predict the companies will eventually come to an agreement."

"Are you using power in one domain into power in another domain where it doesn't belong?" Raskin asked.

"I think what I should do is offer to get you information," Bezos said. "I'll get it to your office."

What about PopSockets?

Rep. Hank Johnson described allegations from PopSockets, which has said it paid enormous sums of money in order for Amazon to deal with a scourge of counterfeits imitating its main product.

"If those are the facts and if someone somewhere inside Amazon said 'buy X dollars in ads and then we'll help you with your counterfeit problem,' that is unacceptable and we'll look into that and I'll get back to your office on that,'" Bezos said.

The allegations were described by PopSockets CEO David Barnett last year.

Music licensing on Twitch

When Armstrong began asking questions about Twitch, Amazon's video-streaming platform, it quickly became clear that Bezos did not feel prepared to answer any questions about the site or its music licensing practices.

"My understanding is Twitch allows users to stream music but does not license the music — is that correct?" Armstrong asked.

"I'm going to have to ask that I could get back to your office with an answer to that question," Bezos said. "I don't know."

The Alexa Fund

Rep. Joe Neguse asked Bezos to respond to allegations in a recent Wall Street Journal article, which found that Amazon launched competing products with startups after meeting with them about potentially investing in their businesses.

"Are you aware of those allegations?" Neguse asked.

"I don't know the specifics of that situation," Bezos said. "I would be happy to get back to your office with more information about that."

Fintech

Apple's new payments tech won't kill Square

It could be used in place of the Square dongle, but it's far short of a full-fledged payments service.

The Apple system would reportedly only handle contactless payments.

Photo: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

Apple is preparing a product to enable merchants to accept contactless payments via iPhones without additional hardware, according to Bloomberg.

While this may seem like a move to compete with Block and its Square merchant unit in point-of-sale payments, that’s unlikely. The Apple service is using technology from its acquisition of Mobeewave in 2020 that enables contactless payments using NFC technology.

Keep Reading Show less
Tomio Geron

Tomio Geron ( @tomiogeron) is a San Francisco-based reporter covering fintech. He was previously a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, covering venture capital and startups. Before that, he worked as a staff writer at Forbes, covering social media and venture capital, and also edited the Midas List of top tech investors. He has also worked at newspapers covering crime, courts, health and other topics. He can be reached at tgeron@protocol.com or tgeron@protonmail.com.

Sponsored Content

A CCO’s viewpoint on top enterprise priorities in 2022

The 2022 non-predictions guide to what your enterprise is working on starting this week

As Honeywell’s global chief commercial officer, I am privileged to have the vantage point of seeing the demands, challenges and dynamics that customers across the many sectors we cater to are experiencing and sharing.

This past year has brought upon all businesses and enterprises an unparalleled change and challenge. This was the case at Honeywell, for example, a company with a legacy in innovation and technology for over a century. When I joined the company just months before the pandemic hit we were already in the midst of an intense transformation under the leadership of CEO Darius Adamczyk. This transformation spanned our portfolio and business units. We were already actively working on products and solutions in advanced phases of rollouts that the world has shown a need and demand for pre-pandemic. Those included solutions in edge intelligence, remote operations, quantum computing, warehouse automation, building technologies, safety and health monitoring and of course ESG and climate tech which was based on our exceptional success over the previous decade.

Keep Reading Show less
Jeff Kimbell
Jeff Kimbell is Senior Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer at Honeywell. In this role, he has broad responsibilities to drive organic growth by enhancing global sales and marketing capabilities. Jeff has nearly three decades of leadership experience. Prior to joining Honeywell in 2019, Jeff served as a Partner in the Transformation Practice at McKinsey & Company, where he worked with companies facing operational and financial challenges and undergoing “good to great” transformations. Before that, he was an Operating Partner at Silver Lake Partners, a global leader in technology and held a similar position at Cerberus Capital LP. Jeff started his career as a Manufacturing Team Manager and Engineering Project Manager at Procter & Gamble before becoming a strategy consultant at Bain & Company and holding executive roles at Dell EMC and Transamerica Corporation. Jeff earned a B.S. in electrical engineering at Kansas State University and an M.B.A. at Dartmouth College.
China

Why does China's '996' overtime culture persist?

A Tencent worker’s open criticism shows why this work schedule is hard to change in Chinese tech.

Excessive overtime is one of the plights Chinese workers are grappling with across sectors.

Photo: VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Workers were skeptical when Chinese Big Tech called off its notorious and prevalent overtime policy: “996,” a 12-hour, six-day work schedule. They were right to be: A recent incident at gaming and social media giant Tencent proves that a deep-rooted overtime culture is hard to change, new policy or not.

Defiant Tencent worker Zhang Yifei, who openly challenged the company’s overtime culture, reignited wide discussion of the touchy topic this week. What triggered Zhang's criticism, according to his own account, was his team’s positive attitude toward overtime. His team, which falls under WeCom — a business communication and office collaboration tool similar to Slack — announced its in-house Breakthrough Awards. The judges’ comments to one winner highly praised them for logging “over 20 hours of intense work nonstop,” to help meet the deadline for launching a marketing page.

Keep Reading Show less
Shen Lu

Shen Lu covers China's tech industry.

Boost 2

Can Matt Mullenweg save the internet?

He's turning Automattic into a different kind of tech giant. But can he take on the trillion-dollar walled gardens and give the internet back to the people?

Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic and founder of WordPress, poses for Protocol at his home in Houston, Texas.
Photo: Arturo Olmos for Protocol

In the early days of the pandemic, Matt Mullenweg didn't move to a compound in Hawaii, bug out to a bunker in New Zealand or head to Miami and start shilling for crypto. No, in the early days of the pandemic, Mullenweg bought an RV. He drove it all over the country, bouncing between Houston and San Francisco and Jackson Hole with plenty of stops in national parks. In between, he started doing some tinkering.

The tinkering is a part-time gig: Most of Mullenweg’s time is spent as CEO of Automattic, one of the web’s largest platforms. It’s best known as the company that runs WordPress.com, the hosted version of the blogging platform that powers about 43% of the websites on the internet. Since WordPress is open-source software, no company technically owns it, but Automattic provides tools and services and oversees most of the WordPress-powered internet. It’s also the owner of the booming ecommerce platform WooCommerce, Day One, the analytics tool Parse.ly and the podcast app Pocket Casts. Oh, and Tumblr. And Simplenote. And many others. That makes Mullenweg one of the most powerful CEOs in tech, and one of the most important voices in the debate over the future of the internet.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Entertainment

Spoiler alert: We’re already in the beta-metaverse

300 million people use metaverse-like platforms — Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft — every month. That equals the total user base of the internet in 1999.

A lot of us are using platforms that can be considered metaverse prototypes.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

What does it take to build the metaverse? What building blocks do we need, how can companies ensure that the metaverse is going to be inclusive, and how do we know that we have arrived in the 'verse?

This week, we convened a panel of experts for Protocol Entertainment’s first virtual live event, including Epic Games Unreal Engine VP and GM Marc Petit, Oasis Consortium co-founder and President Tiffany Xingyu Wang and Emerge co-founder and CEO Sly Lee.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Enterprise

Lyin’ AI: OpenAI launches new language model despite toxic tendencies

Research company OpenAI says this year’s language model is less toxic than GPT-3. But the new default, InstructGPT, still has tendencies to make discriminatory comments and generate false information.

The new default, called InstructGPT, still has tendencies to make discriminatory comments and generate false information.

Illustration: Pixabay; Protocol

OpenAI knows its text generators have had their fair share of problems. Now the research company has shifted to a new deep-learning model it says works better to produce “fewer toxic outputs” than GPT-3, its flawed but widely-used system.

Starting Thursday, a new model called InstructGPT will be the default technology served up through OpenAI’s API, which delivers foundational AI into all sorts of chatbots, automatic writing tools and other text-based applications. Consider the new system, which has been in beta testing for the past year, to be a work in progress toward an automatic text generator that OpenAI hopes is closer to what humans actually want.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins