Antitrust probe: Facebook accused of threatening Instagram; Google slammed for manipulating Search
Image Credit: Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network
The CEOs of Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple, appeared before the US Congress on Wednesday for a long-awaited antitrust hearing.
It was the first time that Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, and Tim Cook — all joining via video conferencing — jointly testified before lawmakers, who want to ensure that Big Tech is not creating anti-competitive monopolies or manipulating user data for self-profits.
The Senators also questioned alleged malpractices at these giant tech businesses that can potentially influence the outcome of the upcoming US Presidential Elections.
Here are the key charges against each of the companies.
Mark Zuckerberg defended Facebook's acquisition of Instagram, which is said to have been a result of the former seeing the latter as a "powerful threat that could siphon business away from Facebook," as per the antitrust probe.
The Facebook CEO said, "At the time, almost no one thought of them as a general social network or competing with us in that space. In the space of mobile photos and camera apps, which was growing, they were a competitor."
Unimpressed with his defence, the House Antitrust Subcommittee stated, “Rather than compete with it, Facebook bought it. This is exactly the type of anti-competitive acquisition that antitrust laws were designed to prevent."
Zuckerberg was also charged with "threatening" Instagram Founder Kevin Systrom with the announcement of an Instagram-like product called Facebook Camera even as he attempted to acquire the photo network. The Facebook CEO refused to see it as a threat since it was already public knowledge that his company was working on that product.
Systrom is believed to have confided in an investor that Zuckerberg sent him a message, saying Facebook “was developing our own photo strategy. So how much we engage now will also determine how much we’re partners versus competitors down the line.”
Facebook was also slammed for buying WhatsApp to create a messaging monopoly as well as for owning the four most-downloaded apps in the world. "It strikes me that over the course of the last several years, Facebook has used its market power to either purchase or replicate the competition," a Senator said.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was grilled on charges of his company stifling the growth of third-party sellers on its platform by misusing their pricing, inventory, and other data.
The antitrust committee alleged that Amazon accesses data of third-party sellers to boost its own private labels despite a policy against such a practice, and the company's prior denials of engaging in it. "I can't guarantee you that policy has never been violated," Bezos said.
Amazon was also charged with entering categories, buying smaller competitors, and eventually, shutting down those businesses sometimes even at the expense of its own bottomline. But, before a "surprised" Bezos could respond to the allegation, the Senator moved on to the next charge.
At the start of his testimony, however, Bezos had remarked, "Just like the world needs small companies, it also needs large ones. [But] I believe Amazon should be scrutinised."
Smartphone major Apple was questioned on whether it treats all app developers fairly or does it discriminate against smaller ones on the App Store?
A Senator asked, "Some developers are favoured over others. Isn't that correct?" "That is not correct," CEO Tim Cook said. "We do a lot of things with developers, including looking at their beta test apps, regardless of whether they are small or large."
The antitrust committed also enquired if the iPhone-maker is "the sole decision-maker on whether an app is made available to users or not".
"We treat every developer the same. It is a rigorous process because we care so deeply about privacy and security and quality. We do look at every app that goes online. But those rules apply evenly to everyone," Cook explained.
Google was accused of hiding search results related to specific political parties and news publications. However, CEO Sundar Pichai denied the charge, saying, "We have always focused on providing users with the most relevant results."
The tech giant was also accused of stealing "content" from businesses and delisting them from Google Search if they were seen as potential competition. "As Google became the gateway to the internet, it began to abuse its power. It used its surveillance over web traffic to identify competitive threats and crush them," the antitrust committee said.
Pichai said he would "follow up" and "engage" with the Senator's office on the matter.
Google was also criticised for Gmail's sorting algorithm that allegedly dumps political campaign mailers in spam folders.
"This is — appears to be — only happening to conservative Republicans. I don't see anything in the news, or anything in the press, or other members on the other side of the aisle talking about their campaign emails getting thrown into junk folders in Gmail. So my question is: Why is this only happening to Republicans?" a Senator asked.
Pichai, however, clarified, "We are focused on what users want and users have indicated they want us to organise personal emails — emails they receive from friends and family — separately. All we have done is, we have a tabbed organisation, and the primary tab has email from friends and family, and the secondary tab has other notifications."
(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)