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30 Jul, 2020 05:56

Big Tech hearing: Much posturing, no meaningful answers for the American public

Big Tech hearing: Much posturing, no meaningful answers for the American public

While a much-awaited antitrust hearing was billed as an Inquisition for Big Tech kingpins, the CEOs were largely able to skirt questions and talk circles around lawmakers looking to bring web platforms under partisan control.

Wednesday’s House antitrust subcommittee hearing saw representatives face down the billionaire heads of four tech giants – Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple’s Tim Cook, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai – who fielded questions in nearly six hours of virtual testimony. Though countless empty slogans and assurances were offered in that time, little was actually said, however, as the reps tried and failed to press the CEOs on concerns of “anti-competitive” business practices and political bias on social media.

 ‘Many a true word is spoken in jest’

Zuckerberg faced a flurry of questions on Facebook’s penchant for buying up competitors. Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colorado) grilled Zuckerberg on the company’s acquisition of platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp, arguing Facebook had become a social media monopoly.

In fact, as [subcommittee chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler] noted, you did tell one of Facebook’s senior engineers in 2012 that you can, quote, ‘likely buy, just buy any competitive startup, but it’ll be a while before we can buy Google.’ Do you recall writing that email?

Zuckerberg brushed off the claim, saying that while he did not remember the email, “it sounds like a joke.” The congressmen, however, noted that it was sent “in regards to having just closed the Instagram sale” in April 2012.

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Zuckerberg insisted the platform still faces competition from all angles, even while repeatedly deflecting direct questions on the firm’s self-described “land grab” approach to competing businesses.

An arbiter of speech?

Zuckerberg’s time in the hot seat also saw him grilled over Facebook’s alleged bias against conservative voices. Although the platform has been repeatedly caught red-handed selectively censoring certain posts and blocking accounts under vague pretexts, Zuckerberg employed a series of platitudes to shrug off the question.

“Our goal is to offer a platform for all ideas. We want to give everyone in the world a voice,” Zuckerberg said, insisting Facebook had distinguished itself as “one of the companies that defends free expression the most.”

While Zuckerberg said Facebook should never become an “arbiter of truth,” he was happy to explain how the platform regularly makes itself an arbiter of speech.

“On specific claims, if somebody is going to go out and say hydroxychloroquine is proven to cure Covid, when in fact it has not… that statement could lead people to take a drug that… might be harmful to people, we think we should take that down,” the CEO argued.

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No more ‘silent donations’?

Google and Alphabet head honcho Sundar Pichai also faced tough questions on political bias, as Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) sought to force him to take a clear stance on whether the search giant would be configured “in a way to help Joe Biden” and “silence conservatives,” with the November election just months away.

“Congressman, on our search engine, conservatives have more access to information than ever before,” Pichai said, largely side-stepping the question, prompting Jordan to state it again, noting it was a “yes or no question.”

“You have my commitment, it’s always been true, and we will continue to conduct ourselves in a neutral way,” the CEO said at last, adding “We won’t do any work to politically tilt anything one way or the other, it’s against our core values.”

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Jordan then reminded Pichai about a leaked company email dated to 2016, in which a top marketing head at the firm described a “silent donation” given to a non-profit, allegedly linked to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and aimed at outreach to Latino voters.

“But you did it in 2016,” Jordan said. “Ms. Eliana Murillo, head of your multicultural marketing, talks about the silent donation Google made to the Clinton campaign, and you applauded her work.”

Keeping with a common theme of the hearing, Pichai deflected, insisting Google “didn’t find any evidence of such activity” and that the company “complied with laws in 2016.”

No guarantees

For much of the hearing, Jeff Bezos, Amazon chief and the world’s richest man, found himself the odd man out, virtually ignored as lawmakers interrogated the other CEOs present – with Bezos at one point seen casually snacking amid the spectacle.

His turn eventually did come, however, as Washington Democrat Pramila Jayapal – who represents the district in which the company is based – began hammering on Amazon’s use of third party seller data.

While Bezos noted the company had policies prohibiting such practices, in what may have been a first during Wednesday’s hours of evasive testimony, Bezos openly admitted he could not “guarantee... that policy has never been violated.”

Despite the lengthy marathon hearing eating up most of Wednesday afternoon, Americans who endured the whole event will walk away with few new insights, with the four billionaires present avoiding meaningful accountability at virtually every turn, able to game Congress’ time-constrained format with filibustering non-answers for nearly six hours straight. 

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