Overnight, the four most powerful men in big tech (perhaps America, perhaps the world) finally submitted to questioning from the US House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee as part of the winding road to better tech regulation.
Those four head (and in some cases, effectively own) the four top tech giants of that descriptive acronym gifted to big tech, FAANG: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple’s Tim Cook, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Google-owner Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai. (Missing last night was the N of the much smaller Netflix).
Here’s the five big takeaways from those hearings:
Patriotism is the last refuge of the tech giant
Big tech’s corporate dominance is, apparently, both the result of and essential to American exceptionalism. They’re what makes America great again.
Bezos was the most personal, with his founder myth of getting off the ground with support from his immigrant parents. “This great nation we live in supports and does not stigmatise entrepreneurial risk-taking,” he said in his opening statement. Zuckerberg was more sub-text: “Facebook is a profoundly American company” built on American values. Pichai used “America” ten times in his opening statement.
According to The New York Times‘ word count, the four used variations of “we are good for America” 24 times either in their opening statements or in response to questions.
China was the missing giant in the room
Zuckerberg was the first to say it: if you don’t like us, look at China. That country, he said, “is building its own version of the internet”. He’d be aware that this month, China’s Tencent (owner of Facebook equivalent WeChat) had passed his company in market value.
In all, the four used 37 variations of the magical incantation “these are not the droids you’re looking for”, either implicitly or explicitly meaning: China!
Is Google now public enemy number one?
Since the 2016 election fake news controversies, Facebook has been Enemy Number One for tech critics. For Trump, it’s been Amazon, not least because Bezos owns that “enemy of the people” The Washington Post.
Now, Alphabet/Google is rising in the rankings. Once, it was a “do no evil” neutral search engine that “connects the world”. Now, it’s both a destination in its own right and a world leader in the most destructive force on the web: ad tech. It’s become the poster child for abuse of market power. (This week, the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission revealed it was launching its own prosecution of the company.)
Earlier this week, not-for-profit newsroom The Markup reported that 41% of Google searches take you to, well, to Google. Google’s become a walled garden, said the hearing’s chair, Democrat David Cicilline. By holding users, the company maximises its opportunities for advertising income.
Pichai waffled him off with company talking points about plenty of competitors (e.g. Amazon) and all the searches that they can’t monetise (e.g. news).
Influential Democrat Pramila Jayapal (whose district in Seattle includes Amazon’s HQ), pointed to Alphabet’s 60% control of the technology that links advertisers and publishers (and snips about half of all ad spend on the way through). Critics say this is used to direct ad dollars to its own properties.
Pichai claimed not to know the figure — one of about 26 versions of “we’ll get back to you” in the NYT count.
The past is no defence
As far as the Democratic members are concerned at least, past takeovers aren’t dead — they’re not even past. The committee produced documents quoting Zuckerberg talking about the threat of Instagram before Facebook’s billion dollar takeover of the competitor.
Jayapal asked him about the number of times they’d built knock-offs of rivals or takeover targets. Zuckerberg repeatedly said he didn’t know. This month, it’s been reported that Facebook is at its second attempt at cloning competitor TikTok, with Reels in beta testing through Instagram.
Meanwhile, the tech giants are fighting last year’s battles
Free speech! We’re not that big anyway! These remain the key defences of the tech giants — and the main focus of the Republican right.
Zuckerberg returned to his talking point that he didn’t want Facebook making content decisions. Cook pointed to the 17 million apps in their App store, claiming to be not a gatekeeper, but a gate opener (and rejected claims they favour their own products in the store).
The companies are eager to avoid the popular right-wing talking point: that their West Coast base gives them an inherent left-wing bias, embedded in their practices, algorithms and decision-making. It’s been a continuing theme in Trump’s presidential tweeting and Republicans picked it up overnight. Big tech is out to get conservatives, said ever-Trumper Jim Jordan, in meandering questions about its role in “cancel culture”.
But, overnight, the debate moved on to the far more dangerous territory of market domination and market abuse.