WHAT WE LEARNED WHEN BIG TECH WAS CROSS-EX­AM­INED

Two of the world’s rich­est men seem to swap roles as their public masks are dropped, finds James Cook

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Front Page -

Avi­a­tors on and mus­cles bulging, Jeff Be­zos strode past a group of pho­tog­ra­phers as­sem­bled out­side the en­trance of the Sun Val­ley con­fer­ence in Idaho.

It was July 2017, and the Ama­zon boss was about to eclipse Mi­crosoft co-founder Bill Gates as the world’s rich­est man. He had ev­ery rea­son to be con­fi­dent.

The pho­tog­ra­phers quickly grabbed their lenses to take the now-fa­mous im­ages of Be­zos trans­formed from geeky book lover to bil­lion­aire body builder. When the pho­tos were pub­lished, so­cial me­dia went wild. “Con­grat­u­la­tions Jeff Be­zos on your change in per­sonal brand from ‘busi­ness as­cetic’ to ‘prefers killing with his bare hands’,” wrote one Twit­ter user.

Since then, Be­zos has spent a great deal of time care­fully cu­rat­ing his public im­age. Part of that per­sona is that of a ruth­less busi­ness­man who is in com­plete con­trol.

But that’s not the im­age Be­zos por­trayed at Wed­nes­day’s com­pe­ti­tion hear­ing. He mum­bled and was con­stantly in­ter­rupted be­fore he could get fin­ish an­swer­ing his ques­tions. At one point, he for­got to un­mute his mi­cro­phone when he was talk­ing.

In­stead, it was Face­book founder Mark Zucker­berg who came across as a savvy, calm ex­ec­u­tive who would take no pris­on­ers.

That too, came as a sur­prise. He has of­ten been de­scribed as awk­ward and ner­vous. His de­pic­tion in the film The So­cial Net­work as a hoodie-wear­ing stu­dent has stayed with him long into his thir­ties.

It seems as though the two tech ty­coons have switched per­son­al­i­ties. How­ever, the emer­gence of Zucker­berg as a clear-sighted, de­ter­mined ex­ec­u­tive won’t have come as a shock to any­one in the technology in­dus­try who has for years seen ex­am­ples of his ruth­less streak which causes other busi­nesses to worry that Face­book could repli­cate their fea­tures if they cross its founder.

Emails re­leased by Congress on Wed­nes­day showed the founder of photo-shar­ing app In­sta­gram wor­ry­ing about an ac­qui­si­tion ap­proach by Zucker­berg in 2012 be­fore he even­tu­ally agreed to sell for $1bn (£765m).

And Zucker­berg has sim­i­larly held firm when it comes to Face­book’s tax ar­range­ments around the world. The com­pany paid just £28.5m of tax in Bri­tain in 2018, de­spite sales surg­ing to £1.7bn.

This ap­proach showed through in Zucker­berg’s per­for­mance. One of the only times he ap­peared awk­ward, ac­cord­ing to body lan­guage ex­pert Craig James Bax­ter, was when he was ques­tioned on whether Face­book copies its com­peti­tors.

“We see signs of dis­com­fort from Zucker­berg, such as the tight lips and nu­mer­ous speech hes­i­ta­tions, a shoul­der shrug,” Bax­ter says. “For the re­main­der of the ques­tion­ing he spoke well and was able to deal with the force­ful­ness of the ques­tion­ing with­out show­ing any no­tice­able behavioura­l leak­age.”

Be­zos, how­ever, largely failed to charm mem­bers of Congress. One topic that was of par­tic­u­lar con­cern to mul­ti­ple mem­bers of Congress was whether Ama­zon uses data on third-party prod­ucts sold through its site to help it pro­duce its own com­pet­ing items.

Ama­zon has de­nied that its em­ploy­ees rou­tinely use this data, but Be­zos waf­fled when pressed on his knowl­edge of poli­cies ban­ning em­ployee ac­cess to the valu­able in­for­ma­tion. “We are in­ves­ti­gat­ing that … I do not want to sit here and I do not want to go be­yond what I know right now,” he said hes­i­tantly.

Ama­zon’s chief ex­ec­u­tive also played dumb when asked if he was aware of claims that vir­tual as­sis­tant Alexa pro­motes Ama­zon’s own prod­ucts over third-party items. “That is un­ac­cept­able, if those are the facts,” he said.

“Be­zos’s per­for­mance was very dif­fer­ent to Zucker­berg’s,” Bax­ter says. “It would ap­pear that the abrupt­ness of the ques­tion­ing from Congress is some­thing Be­zos is not keen on.

“Be­zos of­ten hes­i­tated dur­ing his ver­bal an­swers, pro­vid­ing the lis­tener with nu­mer­ous speech hes­i­ta­tions and speech er­rors, which both re­duces the cred­i­bil­ity of his an­swers and lessons the im­pact that his hand ges­tures make,” he adds.

It didn’t help that Be­zos ex­pe­ri­enced tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties dur­ing the hear­ing, which added to the awk­ward­ness of his re­sponses.

Wed­nes­day’s hear­ing may have fea­tured a change of roles for two of the world’s wealth­i­est men, but that doesn’t mean any of the ex­ec­u­tives man­aged to win over the wide­spread vo­cal crit­ics of their com­pa­nies’ prac­tices.

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