Yesterday (and late last night for us in Thailand time zone) was the historic, virtual Anti-Trust hearing with Washington lawmakers and the Big 4 tech titans: Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple.
The lawmakers came prepared and fired up; folders of evidence were compiled, anonymous emails printed and leaked audio files served as backups to questionings. During the five hour hearing, the tech CEOs were occasionally flustered, often humbled, stuck mainly to the script and for Jeff Bezos, even snuck in a bite of a snack or two.
The House judiciary antitrust subcommittee has said it gathered 1.3 million documents about Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple over the course of its 13-month investigation into the power of the companies’ businesses.
Aggressive questions were asked, validated accusations and the nitty gritty of the big 4’s businesses were combed through for over for 5 long hours. The very foundation of the question remains, has big tech become too dominant? Are we just living in a bubble they created, but we ourselves encouraged?
Zuckerberg was questioned on a series of things, from whether he favours conservatives, to the VPN data leaks and addressed the issue of an email where he wrote to Facebook CFO that “Instagram could be very disruptive” to his business. “Facebook’s very model makes it hard for new companies to flourish,”said Rep. Pramila Jayapal.
Zuckerberg pressed Kevin Systrom, a co-founder of Instagram, to submit to Facebook’s original acquisition offer of $500 million. In other correspondence, Facebook’s chief financial officer at the time specifically pointed at Instagram as a “competitive threat” that needed to be dealt with. This comfirmed what many have already suspected; that Facebook viewed Instagram as a powerful threat that could threaten its business. What better way to abolish competition than to buy it?
However, Zuckerberg said that the nature of the environment that allowed businesses to be acquired and still thrive is healthy. There is some merit to that, but when combined and contextualised with Facebook’s other means of grasping for power, there’s a case to be had.
The biggest issue for Amazon was the topic of whether the company took advantage of third party sellers to benefit their own private label brands. Bezos could not guarantee that data collected from third-party sellers wasn’t used in that way. “You’re monitoring the data to make sure that they’re never going to get big enough that they can compete with you, that is the concern that the committee has.” Said Rep. Jayapal.
Bezos instead talked up Amazon advertising expertise, logistics and fulfilment capabilities. Bezos maintained that sellers have benefited from Amazon’s growth and investment. He said when Amazon decided to invite third-party sellers to offer products on its retail website, the company thought that more selection would let both Amazon and the sellers thrive.
“Customer obsession has driven our success,” he said.
This is a tricky one. Third party sellers most likely cannot thrive on their own without Amazon, particularly with the ecosystem it has built and nurtured over the years. However, would we say that Amazon is a just and fair business partner? Probably not. Can independent sellers live without them? Probably not either, and this loop of a problem is how everything got started. Is there a way to change?
Apple’s main topic during the hearing was its App Store commission structure. First, Representatives Val Demings and Lucy Kay McBath, Democrats from Florida and Georgia, needled CEO Tim Cook on why Apple removed parental-control apps shortly after Apple introduced its own competing tool in 2018.
“We treat every developer the same,” said Cook, when asked about a special program that exempts a handful of companies like Amazon from using Apple’s payments software to process transactions for certain media, effectively circumventing the App Store’s 30% tax on in-app purchases.
Apple still faces accusations that it arbitrarily enforces its rules on app developers, killing some of their businesses quickly and easily.
Apple actually got off easy during this trial.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai was repeatedly asked about Google’s dominance in search. “Most of the data today we collect is to help users and provide personalized experiences back,” Pichai replied. Users are in control of their data, he maintained. This much is clear: Google is the world’s largest advertising company and the data it collects about us is fuel that powers it. It’s too big now to change.
It’s a tricky and complex issue to navigate. Tech titans have gotten so big that we as consumers, business owners and as people, have become so dependent on their products and services. Imagine a world without Facebook, envision a world where we couldn’t go to Google for our random search queries, or analyzed our website data or boosted traffic to our businesses. What about a world without Amazon? In order for these titans to grow this large in scale, did it also mean they had to monopolize the industries they helped create? Granted, labor laws, hate speech and mistreatment of partners are ethical issues that need to be handled swiftly, but the very question circles back to our original point, has big tech gotten too big to change?