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Congress holds the blow torch to Big Tech

Peter Griffin, Contributor. 30 July 2020, 11:14 am

It had the potential to go down as the most awkward Zoom call in the history of tech.

As it happened, the billionaire tech CEOs who dialled it to face a grilling by the US Congress antitrust subcommittee representatives over aspects of their vast businesses connected via Webex instead. 

It's a product made by Cisco, a true blue American company. Patriotism indeed emerged as a theme, with at least one tech executive portraying his company's strength as being good for America and republican politicians probing the tech players' relationships with China.

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Zuckerberg, Bezos, Pichai and Cook. The four leaders of the tech world, who control companies collectively worth trillions of dollars, gave earnest and subdued responses to a litany of questions spanning everything from anti-competitive behaviour to bias on the platforms to inadequacies in their efforts to identify and remove harmful content and concerns that China is stealing intellectual property from them.

Compared to when Mark Zuckerberg appeared on Capitol Hill, in April 2018, to try and explain his way out of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, the politicians were better briefed and less prone to embarrassing themselves.

But this hearing lacked the focus, spanning a range of complex issues that were impossible to properly address in short testimony responses. The hearing has however crystalised the main concerns Democrats and Republicans have when it comes to the influence of the four Big Tech companies in the lives of billions of people.

Those concerns break down into a handful of key categories:

The competition killers

Each executive faced accusations of this in various guises. Tim Cook spent a lot of his testimony defending Apple's policies for how it determines who can put apps in its App Store and how it controls access to iOS devices. 

"We run the app store to help developers not hurt them," he told the lawmakers. 

"We would never steal somebody's IP."

Sundar Pichai was accused of using Google's powerful search engine to favour its own products. 

Amazon's Jeff Bezos was told it had created an "innovation kill zone" by using proprietary from businesses hosted on its Amazon Web services platform to launch competing services. Zuckerberg was grilled on Facebook's acquisitions of Instagram and Whatsapp which were portrayed as cementing Facebook's dominance in social media.

The accusation: The big four are so powerful they are able to buy up potential competitors, they stifle innovation by freezing out rivals and use their access to masses of data to gain a competitive edge.

They are just too big

Apple's App Store is just too dominant, a monopoly on access to the iPhone. Amazon controls over 50 per cent of the US e-commerce market and Google's digital ad business has a similar dominance in the ad market. 

Facebook has the power to influence billions of people and hasn't taken its responsibilities to prevent the spread of information seriously enough, with damaging implications for democracy.

The accusation: This is the crux of the antitrust hearing - lax regulation and a hands-off approach to oversight has led to the emergence of a handful of massively powerful companies that now have unassailable leads over their rivals. They are like the oil barons of the early 20th century.

They are not politically neutral

This was a theme of Republican members of the committee in particular. They zeroed in on Zuckerberg, complaining that Facebook has been biased against content from conservative groups and commentators. That's despite the fact that evidence shows that conservative groups and personalities have a larger share of voice on Facebook than, say, Twitter.

"Big tech is out to get conservatives," said Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio. "If it doesn't end, there have to be consequences."

Pichai was grilled about a high level discussion among Google executives following the 2016 presidential election, a video recording of which was leaked to Breitbart. It showed Google co-founder Sergei Brin commenting that "most people here are pretty upset and pretty sad," about the election result. But has Google used its platforms to thwart the Trump agenda? There was little in the way of compelling evidence to suggest so. 

"Can you assure us that you're not going to tailor or configure your platform to help Joe Biden?" Jordan asked Pichai.

The newly-promoted Alphabet CEO said Google's goal was to remain neutral.

The accusation: These powerful companies and their key executives use their power to advance their ideology which has a toxic effect on democracy.

They aren't socially responsible

This was really aimed at Facebook with the committee members wading into the debate over what the social media platform is doing to moderate content. 

"I believe strongly in free expression," Zuckerberg told the politicians. 

"I am very worried about some of the forces of illiberalism I see in this country that is pressing against free expression."

In a rare show of disunity Bezos lobbed a grenade at Zuckerberg:

"Social media is a nuance destruction machine," he said from his Amazon office. "I don't think that is helpful for a democracy."

The hearing didn't go into the intricacies of content moderation or policies relating to preventing hate speech from spreading, but it was clear that this issue is intertwined with the commercial power the big tech companies have to influence opinion and public discourse with platforms used by billions of people.

The accusation: Big Tech favours profit over social good and is asleep at the wheel when it comes to addressing some of the toxic aspects of human nature manifesting itself on social media platforms.

The Democrats will regulate

The hearing clearly saw lawmakers pulling in different directions over the hotbed issues, but united in their dissatisfaction with the big four tech companies.

It was clear that should Joe Biden be elected president in November, Big Tech companies face regulation and potentially the forced break-up of some of their operations.

There is less of a threat of that with Republicans who nevertheless seek reform, primarily to address bias they claim threatens democracy and to shore up the role of the tech sector in advancing America's agenda.

No fireworks then, no devastating blows on the CEOs, no major gaffes from the politicians, just a sense that the US has a mammoth task ahead of it addressing these issues in a deeply divided country.



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