‘Mr Be­zos, you’re on mute’ – bosses es­cape Washington grilling

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Technology Intelligen­ce - JAMES TIT­COMB

‘Un­mute your mi­cro­phones and raise your right hands,” the con­gress­man said, and four of the world’s most pow­er­ful ex­ec­u­tives on the gi­ant video screen com­plied si­mul­ta­ne­ously. Democ­racy in 2020 is an odd spec­ta­cle.

Wed­nes­day’s five-hour techa­palooza, the first time Ap­ple’s Tim Cook, Google’s Sun­dar Pichai, Face­book’s Mark Zucker­berg and Ama­zon’s Jeff Be­zos had jointly tes­ti­fied in Washington, did not go en­tirely to plan.

The hear­ing was pushed back by 60 min­utes when some­body re­alised the room had to be cleaned af­ter its pre­vi­ous oc­cu­pants – a de­lay that does not in­spire con­fi­dence in the abil­ity of Amer­ica’s po­lit­i­cal ap­pa­ra­tus to rein in Sil­i­con Val­ley.

The We­bEx software that the tech bosses used to dial in for video tes­ti­mony also en­dured tech­ni­cal glitches. At one point, the hear­ing was paused be­cause one wit­ness could not con­nect. At an­other, Ama­zon’s boss failed to an­swer a ques­tion be­cause his mi­cro­phone was de­ac­ti­vated. “Mr Be­zos, you’re on mute,” mul­ti­ple peo­ple in­ter­jected. Per­haps Pichai could have sug­gested mov­ing to Google Meet. The feed on YouTube, af­ter all, was flaw­less.

In the­ory, Be­zos, Pichai, Cook and Zucker­berg were there to in­form an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into their com­pa­nies’ size and power. The com­pa­nies’ grow­ing in­flu­ence over the world’s en­ter­prise and con­ver­sa­tion is one of the key pol­icy chal­lenges of the decade, and new laws to ad­dress tech’s dom­i­nance are a pri­or­ity.

An­titrust sub­com­mit­tee chief David Ci­cilline called the bosses “em­per­ors of the on­line econ­omy”. “Sim­ply put, they have too much power,” he said, in a force­ful open­ing state­ment. Un­for­tu­nately, that rep­re­sented a high wa­ter mark for the hear­ing.

Pre­dic­tions that the event would de­scend into po­lit­i­cal farce were re­alised quickly, when con­gress­man Jim Jor­dan em­barked on an un­bro­ken mono­logue about po­lit­i­cal bias at Twit­ter, a com­pany that rep­re­sents no mo­nop­oly threat, and was not present at the hear­ing.

Jim Sensen­bren­ner, from Wis­con­sin, used much of his as­signed time to ask Zucker­berg about Don­ald Trump Jr’s ac­count be­ing briefly sus­pended ear­lier in the week for shar­ing a mis­lead­ing video about coro­n­avirus. The prob­lem was, Don Jr’s sus­pen­sion didn’t hap­pen on Face­book. “I think what you might be re­fer­ring to hap­pened on Twit­ter,” Zucker­berg replied.

At times, the hear­ing turned to tech sup­port. Repub­li­can con­gress­man Gre­gory Steube asked Pichai why emails from his cam­paign were go­ing into his fa­ther’s Gmail spam folder. Pichai could barely sup­press a smirk in an­swer­ing that junk fil­ters are not po­lit­i­cally bi­ased. Ques­tions swerved from whether Ap­ple and Google use slave labour to why Ama­zon’s Fire TV ser­vice does not have HBO. No se­ri­ous blows were landed. Cook, fac­ing a re­volt over the fees Ap­ple charges app de­vel­op­ers, sailed through the hear­ing. Zucker­berg and Pichai re­peated well-worn talk­ing points and ducked ques­tions. Sur­pris­ingly, Be­zos ap­peared the most rat­tled.

Some rev­e­la­tions emerged. The com­mit­tee pub­lished in­ter­nal Face­book emails that showed Zucker­berg wanted to “neu­tralise” In­sta­gram be­fore ac­quir­ing it in 2012. Doc­u­ments showed Google staff wor­ry­ing that it was send­ing “too much traf­fic” to ri­val web­sites.

But none of the tech gi­ants were forced to reckon with core ques­tions: are they too big, and does too much of the econ­omy rely on them? Nor was there any mem­o­rable mo­ment that will se­ri­ously harm their rep­u­ta­tions. By the time the hear­ing was over, shares in all four com­pa­nies had risen, and Jeff Be­zos was $1.8bn (£1.4bn) richer than he was the day be­fore.

‘Sun­dar Pichai could barely sup­press a smirk in an­swer­ing that junk fil­ters are not po­lit­i­cally bi­ased’

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