Congress Hammers Big Tech on Business Practices

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos speaks via video conference during a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on antitrust on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, July 29, 2020.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos speaks via video conference during a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on antitrust on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. Graeme Jennings/Pool via AP

House lawmakers grilled the tech chiefs of four of America’s largest companies, continuing its investigation into possible antitrust violations.

Leaders from four of America’s largest companies—Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google—were forced to defend themselves from a five-hour bipartisan barrage of questions and criticism from lawmakers Wednesday.

The hearing—convened virtually by the House Judiciary Antitrust subcommittee—provided lawmakers an opportunity to expand upon a lengthy antitrust investigation and doubled as a national spectacle, with Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Google's Sundar Pichai and Apple's Tim Cook among the richest and most famous people in the world.

From the onset, however, lawmakers of both political parties were not awed and came armed with more than a million pages of investigatory documents and internal memos—some of which included the tech chiefs’ own words—as well as testimony from business leaders allegedly bullied out of the market by the companies.

In one exchange, subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline, D-RI, asked Pichai, “Why does Google steal content from honest businesses?” Cicilline was referring to reports that Google, which boasts a 90% market share of internet search engine business, takes content from publishers and media outlets in response queries from Google’s search engine as opposed to simply providing a list of links to users.

Pichai said he disagreed with Cicilline’s characterization.

Google faced significant bipartisan pressure from lawmakers. In another testy exchange, Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., criticized the company for withdrawing from competition for the Defense Department’s Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure cloud contract and for not renewing work on the Pentagon’s Project Maven drone initiative. (Amazon and Microsoft are still locked in a battle for the JEDI contract now.) In both cases, the company cited its company values in reasoning for not pursuing the military efforts, and Buck wondered why the company would work with China but not with the U.S. military.

“If Google wants to cozy up to Communist China, Sundar Pichai must answer for the atrocities committed by the Chinese Communist Party,” Buck said.

Google and Facebook faced further backlash from Republican lawmakers who accused the companies of censoring conservative content.

Bezos, testifying before lawmakers for the first time, defended Amazon’s dominant e-commerce platform, but in one instance seemed to agree with Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., that his company did not fairly treat a specific third-party seller on the site. McBath played a video recording of a third-party textbook seller who accused Amazon of blocking her business after its sales began competing with Amazon. The business owner said she attempted to contact Amazon hundreds of times without successful communication.

“It does not at all, to me, seem like the right way to treat her,” Bezos said, adding that he was not aware of that particular case.

Amazon, which already has a foothold in government contracting through its cloud business, will soon introduce its e-commerce platform to the federal government. In June, the company was one of three selected by the General Services Administration for its e-marketplace pilot, which will provide a proof-of-concept as the government experiments with online portals to supply federal agencies with a wide array of goods and services.

Next steps for the committee’s antitrust investigation are unclear, though it expected to issue a report later this summer on findings thus far. Democrats appear to favor strengthening enforcement of existing antitrust laws and strengthening the laws themselves, while Republicans believe sufficient regulation of big tech companies is doable through existing antitrust law. Cicilline provided his preview of events as the hearing ended.

“These companies as they exist today have monopoly power,” he said. “Some need to be broken up. All need to be properly regulated and held accountable.”