Lawmakers clobbered Big Tech CEOs on Wednesday with accusations of political bias and using ruthless business practices to crush and absorb competitors, knocking Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos back on their heels.
The two CEOs were joined by leaders of Apple and Google in defending their businesses via videoconference in front of the House Judiciary Committee antitrust subcommittee, where they attempted to quell calls for an anti-trust breakup of their companies and federal intervention against accused censorship of users.
The assault on the tech giants came from every direction.
Democrats slammed the companies’ monopolistic grip on the marketplace. Republicans charged the CEOs with silencing conservative voices.
“As gatekeepers to the digital economy, these platforms enjoy the power to pick winners and losers, to shake down small businesses and enrich themselves while choking off competitors,” said Rep. David Cicilline, Rhode Island Democrat and chairman of the subcommittee. “Their ability to dictate terms, call the shots, upend entire sectors, and inspire fear represent the powers of a private government. Our founders would not bow before a king, nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy.”
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, trained his fire on claims of censorship by the tech sites instead of antitrust and competition issues.
“I’ll just cut to the chase: Big Tech’s out to get conservatives,” he said. “That’s not a suspicion. That’s not a hunch. That’s a fact.”
Mr. Jordan accused Google of censoring and targeting conservative websites and lamented that Democrats did not call Twitter to testify as Republicans had requested.
Twitter’s clash with supporters of President Trump became a flashpoint at the hearing although no one from Twitter testified.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the subcommittee’s top Republican, questioned Mr. Zuckerberg about why the social media presence of the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. “got taken down” after he posted about the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine this week.
Mr. Zuckerberg responded by noting that it happened on Twitter, not on Facebook.
He said Facebook does not want to become the “arbiters of truth” but chooses to moderate content that it deems as leading to physical harm.
“We do prevent content that will lead to imminent risk of harm and stating that there is a proven cure for COVID-19 when there is in fact none, might encourage someone to go take something that could have some adverse effects,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “So we do take that down. We do not prohibit discussion around trials of drugs or people saying that they think that things might work or personal experiences with experimental drugs.”
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all removed a viral video this week from a doctor touting hydroxychloroquine as a cure for the coronavirus and saying masks aren’t necessary.
Mr. Trump, who took the anti-malaria drug for several weeks as a preventive measure, had shared the video on social media as well.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, Washington Democrat, did manage to elicit some uncomfortable answers from Mr. Bezos and Mr. Zuckerberg.
Mr. Bezos acknowledged that his company might have leveraged its third-party seller data to boost an internal product.
“I can’t guarantee you that policy has never been violated,” Mr. Bezos said, adding the company was looking into such reports.
The Wall Street Journal reported this year that company employees have used data about independent sellers to develop competing products — an apparent violation of company policy.
Ms. Jayapal also asked Mr. Zuckerberg directly if Facebook copies its competitors.
“We have certainly adapted features that others have led in — as have others copied and adapted features” from us, he said.
She then asked Mr. Zuckerberg how many competitors Facebook has copied.
“I can’t give you a number of companies,” he said. “I don’t know. I’m not sure I agree with the premise here.”
The hearing also marked the first time Mr. Bezos has testified before Congress.
Mr. Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, defended Amazon’s massive business footprint by touting the company’s role as a job creator during the coronavirus-induced economic downturn.
“The trust customers put in us every day has allowed Amazon to create more jobs in the United States over the past decade than any other company — hundreds of thousands of jobs across 42 states,” Mr. Bezos said. “Amazon employees make a minimum of $15 an hour, more than double the federal minimum wage, and we offer the best benefits.”
The hearing was briefly derailed at one point with lawmakers shouting at each another after a Democratic congresswoman accused Republicans of peddling conspiracy theories.
Mr. Jordan pressed Google CEO Sundar Pichai on whether Google would tailor its features to boost presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden.
Mr. Pichai said his company would conduct itself in a neutral way.
“I’d like to redirect your attention to antitrust law, rather than fringe conspiracy theories,” said Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, Pennsylvania Democrat, after Mr. Jordan finished his questioning.
Mr. Jordan and Mr. Cicilline then shouted over each other while Rep. Jamie Raskin, Maryland Democrat, yelled for the Ohio Republican to wear a mask.
Mr. Jordan shouted in response about Michael Flynn, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser.
Wednesday’s hearing was designed to yield information for the antitrust subcommittee’s investigation into Big Tech that began a year ago. A resulting report is anticipated to become public this fall, though the coronavirus’ impact has cast doubt that the report’s release will arrive on time.
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