What we learnt with Big Tech put on the spot

World gets a glimpse into their world. Laurence Dodds, Margi Murphy and Olivia Rudgard in San Fran­cisco re­port

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Technology Intelligen­ce -

De­spite bizarre di­a­tribes about politi­cians’ fa­thers’ spam fold­ers and Jeff Be­zos ac­ci­den­tally mut­ing him­self, we learned a lot from Wed­nes­day’s si­mul­ta­ne­ous in­ter­ro­ga­tion of Face­book’s Mark Zucker­berg, Ama­zon’s Be­zos, Google’s Sun­dar Pichai and Ap­ple’s Tim Cook.

To­gether, the four men rep­re­sented more money than the en­tire GDP of Ja­pan, and twice the mar­ket cap­i­tal­i­sa­tion of FTSE 100 com­pa­nies.

Here are the high­lights.

‘Can­cel cul­ture’ is a prob­lem

It may not be re­lated to mo­nop­o­lies, but we did learn that the tech bosses are wor­ried about “can­cel cul­ture”.

Can­cel cul­ture was re­cently summed up in a let­ter in Amer­i­can pub­li­ca­tion Harper’s, which was signed by 150 in­tel­lec­tu­als in­clud­ing Sal­man Rushdie, Martin Amis, Garry Kas­parov and Mar­garet At­wood.

It warned that “the free ex­change of in­for­ma­tion and ideas, the lifeblood of a lib­eral so­ci­ety, is daily be­com­ing more con­stricted” and that “an in­tol­er­ance of op­pos­ing views, a vogue for public sham­ing and os­tracism” is erod­ing free speech.

When Repub­li­can Jim Jor­dan asked about the is­sue, Cook said: “If you are talk­ing about where some­body with a dif­fer­ent point of view talks and they are can­celled, I do not think that is good”. Be­zos agreed, declar­ing that so­cial me­dia was a “nu­ance de­struc­tion ma­chine”. Zucker­berg, the king of so­cial me­dia it­self, piped up that he had be­come “very wor­ried about some of the forces of il­lib­er­al­ism I see in this coun­try that are push­ing against free­dom of ex­pres­sion”.

In­sta­gram’s Zucker punch

In the hear­ing’s most ex­plo­sive rev­e­la­tion, Demo­cratic rep­re­sen­ta­tives pro­duced in­ter­nal doc­u­ments from Face­book’s ne­go­ti­a­tions with In­sta­gram in 2012 that ap­peared to con­firm his crit­ics’ case against him.

Asked about his mo­ti­va­tion for pur­su­ing the deal, Zucker­berg con­firmed that it was mostly (in his col­league’s words) to “neu­tralise a com­peti­tor”. He went on:

“Once some­one wins at a spe­cific me­chanic, it’s dif­fi­cult for oth­ers to sup­plant them with­out do­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent …

“What we’re re­ally buy­ing is time. Buy­ing In­sta­gram, Path, Foursquare etc now will give us a year or more to in­te­grate their dy­nam­ics be­fore any­one can get close to their scale again. Within that time, if we in­cor­po­rate the so­cial me­chan­ics they were us­ing, those new prod­ucts won’t get much trac­tion.”

In other words: Face­book is so big that no­body else can chal­lenge it. And if other apps in­vent a new arena, Face­book can gob­ble them up. (About an hour later, Zucker­berg fol­lowed up with an email clar­i­fy­ing that he didn’t want “to pre­vent them from com­pet­ing with us in any way”). Be­zos doesn’t get Ama­zon Be­zos strug­gled to an­swer ques­tions about how his com­pany op­er­ates be­hind the scenes. He was un­able to con­firm whether sell­ers were ver­i­fied us­ing their name and ad­dress, or if Ama­zon kept a phone num­ber of sell­ers to po­lice the mar­ket­place for stolen or dan­ger­ous goods. The leader could not give a “yes or no” an­swer to a ques­tion about whether Ama­zon uses third party seller data to ad­van­tage its pri­vate la­bel brand – claims which were made in a Wall Street Jour­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion. “What I can tell you is, we have a pol­icy against us­ing seller spe­cific data to aid our pri­vate la­bel busi­ness,” he said. “But I can’t guar­an­tee to you that pol­icy has never been vi­o­lated.”

Faced with claims that ven­dors were forced to pay for Ama­zon ad­verts in ex­change for re­mov­ing coun­ter­feits, and that Alexa is pro­grammed to pro­mote Ama­zon’s prod­ucts above oth­ers, Be­zos, again, played dumb. “That is un­ac­cept­able, if those are the facts,” he said.

Squab­bling cen­tre stage

Watch­ing the com­mit­tee ask its ques­tions was like watch­ing two par­al­lel hear­ings hap­pen­ing at the same time. The Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can sides of the aisle op­er­ate in en­tirely dif­fer­ent uni­verses, with pri­or­i­ties and de­mands that of­ten pull di­rectly against each other.

A fre­quent theme of the Repub­li­can side, picked up by con­gress­men Jim Jor­dan and Matt Gaetz, was the com­mon be­lief that the com­pa­nies are bi­ased against con­ser­va­tives. Mean­while his Demo­cratic col­leagues ac­cused him and other con­ser­va­tives of hav­ing a “per­se­cu­tion com­plex” and urged the com­pa­nies to do more to crack down on the very con­tent he was crit­i­cis­ing them for re­mov­ing, which they ar­gue con­sti­tutes dis­in­for­ma­tion and pro­pa­ganda.

A deeper di­vide also lies in the be­lief from the Repub­li­can law­mak­ers that at­tempts to reg­u­late busi­nesses in this way are in­ap­pro­pri­ate and an un­nec­es­sary check on Amer­i­can in­no­va­tion. The real threat, they ar­gue, comes from China and from the un­fair lib­eral in­flu­ence they be­lieve is con­trol­ling th­ese pow­er­ful com­pa­nies.

There’s a com­mon be­lief that ac­tion is re­quired, but while the two sides are so far apart that they are not even dis­cussing the same is­sues, there seems lit­tle prospect that the po­lit­i­cal will ex­ists to make any moves against the com­pa­nies for sti­fling com­pe­ti­tion.

For­get­ful ‘Cy­ber barons’

It’s amaz­ing how those lit­tle things can slip your mind. Who among us hasn’t for­got­ten the date of a party, the type of bat­tery we needed to buy, or whether or not we used our dom­i­nant po­si­tion in a mar­ket to sup­press fair com­pe­ti­tion?

Fear not: this hear­ing proved that the “cy­ber barons” are as ab­sent­minded as the rest of us.

Was it fair for Ap­ple to pres­sure book pub­lish­ers to join its ser­vices? “I can’t see the email, so I don’t know the con­text of it,” said Cook. Maybe the app was too glitchy, he sug­gested.

Did Mark Zucker­berg ever threaten Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel in any way while at­tempt­ing to buy his com­pany? “I don’t re­mem­ber the spe­cific con­ver­sa­tions,” said the Face­book chief (the two men had a fa­mously pas­sive-ag­gres­sive ex­change).

How about re­ports that Ama­zon had used in­for­ma­tion from in­vest­ment dis­cus­sions with smaller com­pa­nies to copy their prod­ucts? “I read that ar­ti­cle but I didn’t re­mem­ber that piece … I don’t know the specifics of the sit­u­a­tion,” said Jeff Be­zos.

Google lock­ing in ad­ver­tis­ing cus­tomers? “I’m not aware of that spe­cific is­sue.” Face­book spy­ing on chil­dren? “I’m not fa­mil­iar with that.”

It was a re­mark­able per­for­mance for men run­ning some of the world’s most pow­er­ful com­pa­nies, par­tic­u­larly for Zucker­berg and Be­zos, who are fa­mously hands-on and per­son­ally built their own com­pa­nies from scratch. At points, Pichai and Zucker­berg had to go back and cor­rect them­selves: yes, they did re­mem­ber cer­tain mas­sive scan­dals.

So per­haps there re­ally is hope for us all to be­come the next Jeff Be­zos. Where were those car keys again?

Sun­dar Pichai, the Google chief, was one of four cy­ber barons to face Washington politi­cians

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