Big Tech's giants take heat at congressional hearing on their power, influence

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Google's Sundar Pichai and Apple's Tim Cook answered questions about their company practices before U.S. Congress.

Amazon's Bezos, Apple's Cook, Google's Pichai and Facebook's Zuckerberg spoke remotely

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos testifies before the House judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, commercial and administrative law during the hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. (Mandel Ngan/Reuters)

Fending off accusations of stifling competition, four Big Tech CEOs — Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Sundar Pichai of Google and Tim Cook of Apple — answered for their companies' practices before the U.S. Congress as a House panel capped its yearlong investigation of market dominance in the industry.

The powerful CEOs sought to defend their companies amid intense grilling by lawmakers on Wednesday.

The executives provided bursts of data showing how competitive their markets are, and the value of their innovation and essential services to consumers. But they sometimes struggled to answer pointed questions about their business practices.

They also confronted a range of other concerns about alleged political bias, their effect on U.S. democracy and their role in China.

The four CEOs testified remotely to lawmakers, most of whom were sitting, in masks, inside the hearing room in Washington.

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Among the toughest questions for Google and Amazon involved accusations that they used their dominant platforms to scoop up data about competitors in a way that gave them an unfair advantage.

Bezos said in his first testimony to Congress that he couldn't guarantee that the company had not accessed seller data to make competing products, an allegation that the company and its executives have previously denied.

Regulators in the U.S. and Europe have scrutinized Amazon's relationship with the businesses that sell on its site and whether the online shopping giant has been using data from the sellers to create its own private-label products.

"We have a policy against using seller specific data to aid our private label business," Bezos said in a response to a question from U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat. "But I can't guarantee to you that that policy hasn't been violated."

Google accused of stealing information

Pichai's opening remarks touted Google's value to mom-and-pop businesses in Bristol, R.I., and Pewaukee, Wis., in the home districts of the antitrust panel's Democratic chairman, Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline, and its ranking Republican, Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin.

But the Google executive struggled as Cicilline accused the company of leveraging its dominant search engine to steal ideas and information from other websites and manipulating its results to drive people to its own digital services to boost its profits.

Pichai repeatedly deflected Cicilline's attacks by asserting that Google tries to provide the most helpful and relevant information to the hundreds of millions of people who use its search engine each day in an effort to keep them coming back instead of defecting to a rival service, such as Microsoft's Bing.

The four Big Tech CEOs all raise their hands to be sworn in to testify via videoconference during the hearing. (U.S. House Judiciary Committee/Reuters)

Meanwhile, Cicilline accused Facebook of making money off dangerous lies that could have deadly consequences, noting a series of popular conspiracy theories — including that the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax — that have thrived on Facebook's platform during the deadly virus' grip across the globe.

"It brings the most activity which, of course, produces great profit," Cicilline said to Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg offered assurances that the social network's users don't want to see misinformation in their feeds, so the company has taken big steps to scrub its site of inaccurate coronavirus claims.

But that only invited more pushback from Cicilline, who noted out that just on Monday the company struggled to take down a video of pro-Trump doctors peddling misleading claims that Americans don't need to wear masks and an unproven anti-malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, as a sure-fire way to treat the virus.

The video raked in more than 20 million views before Facebook started removing it, with dozens of other versions of it still cropping up.

The antitrust panel's Democratic chairman, Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline, has called the four companies monopolies, although he said breaking them up should be a last resort. (Graeme Jennings/Reuters)

In his testimony, Apple's Cook rejected the notion there is nothing to stop his company from raising the commissions it charges in the App Store.

"I disagree strongly with that," he said. "The competition for developers — they can write their apps for Android or Windows or Xbox or PlayStation. We have fierce competition at the developer side and the customer side, which is essentially so competitive I would describe it as a street fight."

'Out to get conservatives'

As Democrats largely focused on market competition, several Republicans aired longstanding grievances that the tech companies are censoring conservative voices and questioned their business activities in China.

"Big Tech is out to get conservatives," said Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio.

Critics question whether the companies — which have grown increasingly powerful after gobbling up scores of rivals — stifle competition and innovation, raise prices for consumers and pose a danger to society.

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In its bipartisan investigation, the House's judiciary subcommittee on antitrust collected testimony from mid-level executives of the four firms, competitors and legal experts, and pored over more than a million internal documents from the companies.

A key question is whether existing competition policies and century-old antitrust laws are adequate for oversight of the tech giants or if new legislation and enforcement funding is needed.

Cicilline has called the four companies monopolies, although he said breaking them up should be a last resort.

While forced breakups may appear unlikely, the wide scrutiny of Big Tech points toward possible new restrictions on its power.

Cicilline also said that in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, "these giants stand to profit" and become even more powerful as millions shift more of their work and commerce online.

The companies face legal and political offensives on multiplying fronts, from Congress, the Trump administration, federal and state regulators and European watchdogs.

The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission have been investigating the four companies' practices.

With files from Reuters