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Politics

What the tech hearing proved about Democrats’ case against Big Tech

They came with antitrust receipts.

What the tech hearing proved about Democrats’ case against Big Tech

If the tech CEOs appearing at the hearing hoped to skate around lawmakers too clueless to take them on, well, that's not what's happening.

Screenshot: Shakeel Hashim/Protocol

Congress takes a lot of abuse for being dumb about tech, and some of it's well deserved. Take, for instance, Rep. Greg Steube grilling Sundar Pichai about why — surprise! — different search results appear at different times and why some of his emails go to spam.

But if the tech CEOs appearing at today's hearing hoped to skate around lawmakers too clueless to take them on, well, that's not what's happening. While most high-profile congressional hearings feature a series of random and disconnected partisan speeches disguised as questions (and there have been a few of those today, to be fair), the Democratic members of the House Antitrust Subcommittee seem committed to building a methodical and coordinated case against Big Tech — and they came with receipts.

One by one, the Democrats laid out their case and collected evidence to support it:

  • Rep. Pramila Jayapal vs. Jeff Bezos: Jayapal, who represents much of Seattle, asked Bezos to answer a simple "yes or no" question: Does Amazon use data from third-party sellers to improve its own products? The committee accused Amazon General Counsel Nate Sutton of lying under oath about this issue when he appeared before Congress last year.

    In response, Bezos said, "I can't answer that question yes or no. What I can tell you is we have a policy against using seller-specific data to aid our private label business." But he conceded, "I can't guarantee you that policy has never been violated."

    Jayapal then quoted an anonymous former Amazon employee who spoke to the committee during its investigation: "There's a rule, but there's nobody enforcing or spot-checking. They just say, 'Don't help yourself to the data.' It's a candy shop. Everybody can have access to anything they want."
  • Rep. David Cicilline vs. Sundar Pichai: The subcommittee chairman grilled Pichai specifically about Google "stealing" content from other companies, like Genius, who fear retaliation from Google if they complain. "So my first question, Mr. Pichai, is why does Google steal content from honest businesses?" Cicilline also asked about an internal Google document complaining that some websites were "getting too much traffic" and asked how Google can claim to deliver the most relevant search results while also favoring "whatever's most profitable for Google."
  • Rep. Jerry Nadler vs. Mark Zuckerberg: The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee pinned Zuckerberg down with specific documents and emails in which Zuckerberg suggested buying Instagram because he feared the upstart would be "disruptive" and Facebook was "vulnerable in mobile." Zuckerberg's defense: There were lots of photo-sharing apps at the time — remember Path? — and there was nothing wrong with Facebook buying one. "In hindsight, it probably looks obvious Instagram would have reached the scale it has today, but it was far from obvious," he said.
  • Rep. Joe Neguse vs. Mark Zuckerberg: Neguse pressed Zuckerberg over a slide created for Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg in 2012, which concluded Facebook is "now 95% of social media in the U.S." He pointed to that internal slide to bolster his argument that Facebook's business amounts to a "monopoly."

    Neguse, the vice chair of the subcommittee, then quoted a 2014 email from Facebook's chief financial officer, who described the company's acquisitions strategy as a "land grab," and pointed out documents showing Facebook acknowledging internally that its user base overlapped significantly with WhatsApp's.

    "You did tell one of Facebook's senior engineers in 2012 that you can 'likely just buy any competitive startup, but it'll be a while before we can buy Google,'" Neguse read. "Do you recall writing that email?"

    "Congressman, I don't specifically," Zuckerberg said. "But it sounds like a joke."
  • Rep. Pramila Jayapal vs. Mark Zuckerberg: Jayapal interrogated Zuckerberg on Facebook's practice of launching copycat features. Bluntly, she asked, "Do you copy your competitors?" Zuckerberg's response: "We have certainly adapted features that others have led in." When pressed for the number of times this might have happened, Zuckerberg didn't have an answer.

    Things became more heated when Jayapal asked, "Has Facebook ever threatened to clone the products of another company while also attempting to acquire that company?" When Zuckerberg said, "Not that I recall," Jayapal replied, "I'd like to just remind you that you are under oath."

    She then brought up examples from when Facebook bought Instagram and attempted to snap up Snapchat. Jayapal said Zuckerberg used Facebook products to threaten competitors into selling, specifically highlighting a conversation between Zuckerberg and Instagram's Kevin Systrom, in which Systrom reportedly felt threatened. Zuckerberg denied the allegation, saying, "I don't view those conversations as a threat in any way."
  • Rep. Jamie Raskin vs. Jeff Bezos: Rep. Jamie Raskin ticked off a series of hyper-specific questions about Amazon's Alexa, cornering Bezos with questions about whether Alexa smart speakers are priced below market — thus making them nearly impossible to compete with. Bezos conceded that Alexa speakers are priced below market when they're on "promotion," which they frequently are. Raskin then interrogated Bezos about why Alexa automatically offers up Prime Music and tells users to buy AmazonBasics batteries. He asked if Alexa is trained to promote Amazon products. "We do promote our own products," Bezos admitted.

Any confessions and nonanswers are certain to be noted by the regulators investigating Big Tech both in the U.S. and around the world.

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