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
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