Big Tech CEOs Appear At Hearing

In a marathon hearing, Democrats make their case on why big tech is engaged in antitrust and anti-competitive practices. Whether this hearing and a future report change anything is an open question.

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On  29 July, the House Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law Subcommittee held its sixth hearing on “Online Platforms and Market Power” titled “Examining the Dominance of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google” with the heads of Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook that lasted more than five hours. Democrats largely focused their questions on the documents and information provided by the companies to make the case each had engaged in practices that are at the least anti-competitive if not illegal under the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts. On the other hand, Republicans largely avoided discussing anti-competitive or antitrust issues except in connection with lines of questioning regarding social media moderation of content that is allegedly biased against conservatives and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

The subcommittee is expected to issue its report in the near term with possible recommendations on how to amend US law to address the problems turned up during the investigation. However, the Republican-controlled Senate and the White House will likely not be receptive to legislation to update the US’ antitrust or anti-competitive laws. And yet, a Democratic White House and Senate may prove more receptive and able to effect changes in these laws. It remains to be seen whether the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) bring broad cases against these companies for potential violations. Likewise, groups of states are collectively investigating Google and Facebook, and the attorney general of California is looking into Amazon’s business practices. Finally, the European Commission (EC) is also investigating a number of this companies as its new leadership considers the size and power of tech companies a central issue in the European Union.

Subcommittee Chair David Cicilline (D-RI) asserted “[a]lthough these four corporations differ in important and meaningful ways, we have observed common patterns and competition problems over the course of our investigation:

  • First, each platform is a bottleneck for a key channel of distribution. Whether they control access to information or to a marketplace, these platforms have the incentive and ability to exploit this power. They can charge exorbitant fees, impose oppressive contracts, and extract valuable data from the people and businesses that rely on them.
  • Second, each platform uses its control over digital infrastructure to surveil other companies—their growth, business activity, and whether they might pose a competitive threat. Each platform has used this data to protect its power, by either buying, copying, or by cutting off access for any actual or potential rival.
  • Third, these platforms abuse their control over current technologies to extend their power. Whether it’s through self-preferencing, predatory pricing, or requiring users to buy additional products, the dominant platforms have wielded their power in destructive, harmful ways in order to expand.

Cicilline stated that

  • At today’s hearing we will examine how each of these companies has used this playbook to achieve and maintain dominance—and how their power shapes and affects our daily lives. Why does this matter? Many of the practices used by these companies have harmful economic effects. They discourage entrepreneurship, destroy jobs, hike costs, and degrade quality. Simply put: They have too much power. This power staves off new forms of competition, creativity, and innovation. And while these dominant firms may still produce some new innovative products, their dominance is killing the small businesses, manufacturing, and overall dynamism that are the engines of the American economy.
  • Several of these firms also harvest and abuse people’s data to sell ads for everything from new books to dangerous “miracle” cures. When everyday Americans learn how much of their data is being mined, they can’t run away fast enough. But in many cases, there is no escape from this surveillance because there is no alternative. People are stuck with bad options. Open markets are predicated on the idea that if a company harms people, consumers, workers, and business partners will choose another option. We are here today because that choice is no longer possible.

Cicilline stated “I am confident that addressing the problems we see in these markets will lead to a stronger, more vibrant economy…[b]ecause concentrated economic power also leads to concentrated political power, this investigation also goes to the heart of whether we, as a people, govern ourselves, or whether we let ourselves be governed by private monopolies.”

Subcommittee Ranking Member James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) lauded the technological innovations the four companies have provided Americans that made coping with the COVID-19 pandemic easier. He reiterated that “being big is not inherently bad” and asserted the opposite was true because in the US success should be rewarded. Sensenbrenner said the hearing is designed to help the subcommittee better understand the roles the companies play in the digital marketplace and the effect on consumers and the public at large. He said that data drives the marketplace and those who control the data, in essence, control the marketplace. Sensenbrenner said there are broader questions around data such as who owns it; do they share data with their customers or competitors; what is the fair market value of that data; is there anything monopolistic in acquiring this data; and what are the implications of monetizing data.

Sensenbrenner claimed that since the “tech investigation” began, “we have heard rumblings from many” who say your companies have grown too large. He stated that since the hearing was announced the complaints have gotten even louder. Sensenbrenner said he found these complaints informative, but he did not plan on litigating each complaint today. He asserted antitrust law and the consumer welfare standard have served the US well for over a century and have provided a framework for some of the US’s most successful and innovative companies. Sensenbrenner allowed that as the economy evolves, antitrust law may need updating to meet the needs of the nation and its consumers. He stated his concern that market dominance in this space is ripe for abuse, “particularly when it comes to free speech,” as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have become the public space of today as political debate unfolds in real time. Sensenbrenner said that reports of “dissenting views, often conservative views” are targeted or censored are seriously troubling. He stressed that “conservatives are consumers, too” and “they need the protection of antitrust laws.” He argued that the power to shape debate carries tremendous responsibility.

Sensenbrenner said facts should guide the inquiry. He noted the companies are large, successful, and powerful, all of which are fine. He asserted he wanted to leave the hearing with a better picture of how these qualities affect consumers.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos claimed

  • The global retail market we compete in is strikingly large and extraordinarily competitive. Amazon accounts for less than 1% of the $25 trillion global retail market and less than 4% of retail in the U.S. Unlike industries that are winner-take-all, there’s room in retail for many winners. For example, more than 80 retailers in the U.S. alone earn over $1 billion in annual revenue.
  • Like any retailer, we know that the success of our store depends entirely on customers’ satisfaction with their experience in our store. Every day, Amazon competes against large, established players like Target, Costco, Kroger, and, of course, Walmart—a company more than twice Amazon’s size. And while we have always focused on producing a great customer experience for retail sales done primarily online, sales initiated online are now an even larger growth area for other stores. Walmart’s online sales grew 74% in the first quarter.
  • And customers are increasingly flocking to services invented by other stores that Amazon still can’t match at the scale of other large companies, like curbside pickup and in-store returns. The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on these trends, which have been growing for years. In recent months, curbside pickup of online orders has increased over 200%, in part due to COVID19 concerns. We also face new competition from the likes of Shopify and Instacart—companies that enable traditionally physical stores to put up a full online store almost instantaneously and to deliver products directly to customers in new and innovative ways—and a growing list of omnichannel business models. Like almost every other segment of our economy, technology is used everywhere in retail and has only made retail more competitive, whether online, in physical stores, or in the various combinations of the two that make up most stores today. And we and all other stores are acutely aware that, regardless of how the best features of “online” and “physical” stores are combined, we are all competing for and serving the same customers. The range of retail competitors and related services is constantly changing, and the only real constant in retail is customers’ desire for lower prices, better selection, and convenience.
  • It’s also important to understand that Amazon’s success depends overwhelmingly on the success of the thousands of small and medium-sized businesses that also sell their products in Amazon’s stores. Back in 1999, we took what at the time was the unprecedented step of welcoming third-party sellers into our stores and enabling them to offer their products right alongside our own. Internally, this was extremely controversial, with many disagreeing and some predicting this would be the beginning of a long, losing battle. We didn’t have to invite third-party sellers into the store. We could have kept this valuable real estate for ourselves. But we committed to the idea that over the long term it would increase selection for customers, and that more satisfied customers would be great for both third-party sellers and for Amazon. And that’s what happened.
  • Within a year of adding those sellers, third-party sales accounted for 5% of unit sales, and it quickly became clear that customers loved the convenience of being able to shop for the best products and to see prices from different sellers all in the same store. These small and medium-sized third-party businesses now add significantly more product selection to Amazon’s stores than Amazon’s own retail operation. Third-party sales now account for approximately 60% of physical product sales on Amazon, and those sales are growing faster than Amazon’s own retail sales. We guessed that it wasn’t a zero sum game. And we were right—the whole pie did grow, third-party sellers did very well and are growing fast, and that has been great for customers and for Amazon. There are now 1.7 million small and medium-sized businesses around the world selling in Amazon’s stores. More than 200,000 entrepreneurs worldwide surpassed $100,000 in sales in our stores in 2019. On top of that, we estimate that third-party businesses selling in Amazon’s stores have created over 2.2 million new jobs around the world.

Apple CEO Tim Cook asserted

  • The smartphone market is fiercely competitive, and companies like Samsung, LG, Huawei and Google have built very successful smartphone businesses offering different approaches.
  • Apple does not have a dominant market share in any market where we do business. That is not just true for iPhone; it is true for any product category.
  • What motivates us is the continuous improvement of the user experience, and we focus relentlessly on and invest significantly in new breakthroughs, innovative features and deepening the principles that set us apart.
  • Privacy and security are key examples of this drive. This is true for the iPhone and for every device we make. We build products that, from the ground up, help users protect their fundamental right to the privacy of their personal data. This principle is foundational and touches everything else we do.
  • We created the App Store in 2008 as a feature of the iPhone. Launching with a little more than 500 apps, it was our ambitious attempt to dramatically expand the features and customizability of every user’s device. We wanted to create a safe and trusted place for users to discover apps—and a means of providing a secure and supportive way for developers to develop, test and distribute apps to iPhone users globally.
  • Apple continuously improves, and provides every developer with cutting-edge tools like compilers, programming languages, operating systems, frameworks and more than 150,000 essential software building blocks called APIs. These are not only powerful, but so simple to use that students in elementary schools can and do make apps.
  • The App Store guidelines ensure a high-quality, reliable and secure user experience. They are transparent and applied equally to developers of all sizes and in all categories. They are not set in stone. Rather, they have changed as the world has changed, and we work with developers to apply them fairly.
  • For the vast majority of apps on the App Store, developers keep 100% of the money they make. The only apps that are subject to a commission are those where the developer acquires a customer on an Apple device and where the features or services would be experienced and consumed on an Apple device.
  • Apple’ s commissions are comparable to or lower than commissions charged by the majority of our competitors. And they are vastly lower than the 50 to 70 percent that software developers paid to distribute their work before we launched the App Store.
  • In the more than a decade since the App Store debuted, we have never raised the commission or added a single fee. In fact, we have reduced them for subscriptions and exempted additional categories of apps. The App Store evolves with the times, and every change we have made has been in the direction of providing a better experience for our users and a compelling business opportunity for developers.
  • I am here today because scrutiny is reasonable and appropriate. We approach this process with respect and humility. But we make no concession on the facts.

Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai contended

  • Google operates in highly competitive and dynamic global markets, in which prices are free or falling, and products are constantly improving. Today’s competitive landscape looks nothing like it did 5 years ago, let alone 21 years ago, when Google launched its first product, Google Search.
  • For example, people have more ways to search for information than ever before — and increasingly this is happening outside the context of only a search engine. Often the answer is just a click or an app away: You can ask Alexa a question from your kitchen; read your news on Twitter; ask friends for information via WhatsApp; and get recommendations on Snapchat or Pinterest. When searching for products online, you may be visiting Amazon, eBay, Walmart, or any one of a number of e-commerce providers, where most online shopping queries happen.
  • Similarly, in areas like travel and real estate, Google faces strong competition for search queries from many businesses that are experts in these areas.
  • A competitive digital ad marketplace gives publishers and advertisers, and therefore consumers, an enormous amount of choice. For example, competition in ads — from Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Comcast and others — has helped lower online advertising costs by 40% over the last 10 years, with these savings passed down to consumers through lower prices.
  • We also deliberately build platforms that support the innovation of others. Using Android — a product I worked on for many years — thousands of device makers and mobile operators build and sell devices without any licensing fees to us or any requirement to integrate our products. This greatly reduces device prices, and today billions of consumers around the globe are now able to afford cuing-edge smartphones, some for less than $50. And in doing so they are able to access new opportunities — whether it’s sharing a video with friends and family around the world, gaining an education for themselves or their children, or starting a business. Competition also sets higher standards for privacy and security. I’ve always believed that privacy is a universal right and should be available to everyone, and Google is committed to keeping your information safe, treating it responsibly, and putting you in control of what you choose to share. We also never sell user information to third parties. But more must be done to protect users across industries, which is why we’ve long supported the creation of comprehensive federal privacy laws.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asserted

  • Our story would not have been possible without U.S. laws that encourage competition and innovation. I believe that strong and consistent competition policy is vital because it ensures that the playing field is level for all. At Facebook, we compete hard, because we’re up against other smart and innovative companies that are determined to win. We know that our future success is not guaranteed, especially in a global tech industry defined by rapid innovation. The history of technology is often the history of failure, and even industry leading tech companies fail if they don’t stay competitive. This is why we’re focused on delivering better services for people and businesses, and competing as vigorously as we can within the rules.
  • Although people around the world use our products, Facebook is a proudly American company. We believe in values — democracy, competition, inclusion and free expression — that the American economy was built on. Many other tech companies share these values, but there’s no guarantee our values will win out. For example, China is building its own version of the internet focused on very different ideas, and they are exporting their vision to other countries. As Congress and other stakeholders consider how antitrust laws support competition in the U.S., I believe it’s important to maintain the core values of openness and fairness that have made America’s digital economy a force for empowerment and opportunity here and around the world.
  • Like many companies, we’ve both built our own products from the ground up, and we’ve moved others forward through mergers and acquisitions. Our acquisitions have helped drive innovation for people who use our own products and services and for the broader startup community. Acquisitions bring together different companies’ complementary strengths. When you acquire a company, you can benefit from their technology and talent, and when you are acquired you get access to resources and people you otherwise might never have been able to tap into.
  • Facebook has made Instagram and WhatsApp successful as part of our family of apps. Instagram and WhatsApp have been able to grow and operate their services using Facebook’s bespoke, lower-cost infrastructure and tackle spam and harmful content with Facebook’s integrity teams and technology.
  • Following its acquisition, Instagram was able to get help stabilizing infrastructure and controlling runaway spam. It also benefited from the ability to plug into Facebook’s self-serve ads system, sales team and existing advertiser relationships to drive monetization, and was able to build products including IG Direct and IG Video that used Facebook’s technology and infrastructure. Before it was acquired, WhatsApp was a paid app with a reputation for secure communications; together we built on that by introducing end-to-end encryption and making it free to use. Since its acquisition, WhatsApp has also been able to develop products such as voice and video calling that were built on Facebook’s technology stack.
  • These benefits came about as a result of our acquisition of those companies, and would not have happened had we not made those acquisitions. We have developed new products for Instagram and WhatsApp, and we have learned from those companies to bring new ideas to Facebook. The end result is better services that provide more value to people and advertisers, which is a core goal of Facebook’s acquisition strategy.

© Michael Kans, Michael Kans Blog and michaelkans.blog, 2019-2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Kans, Michael Kans Blog, and michaelkans.blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Image by Jorge Guillen from Pixabay

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