WASHINGTON — The market caps of Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple combined to surpass $3.3 trillion on Tuesday. But to hear their chosen messengers tell it on Capitol Hill, you’d think they’re mom-and-pop shops.
Matt Perault, head of global policy development at Facebook, went so far as to say he didn’t know his employer was the world’s largest social media network.
Welcome to the congressional antitrust inquiry into Big Tech.
Along with Perault, representatives from Amazon, Google, and Apple desperately downplayed their businesses’ size while exaggerating the threats from the generally meager competition.
All four men testifying before a House panel Tuesday disagreed with the notion that any of their mammoth companies have the power to pick winners and losers in a digital economy shaped in their image.
“We face fierce competition for the products and services we offer,” Perault added.
While Republicans largely shy away from equating big with bad, Democrats have stepped up calls for scrutiny of large tech companies in recent months. Lawmakers in both chambers of Congress have introduced dead-on-arrival legislation to improve accountability, and 2020 hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren even proposed to break them up.
House Democrats similarly took a more aggressive posture on Tuesday, warning of a “kill zone” surrounding Big Tech that would stifle new innovation. In response to Perault’s apparent ignorance of Facebook’s market dominance, Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., rattled off the sizes of Facebook-owned services WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram.
“When a company owns four of the largest six entities — measured by active users — in the world, we have a word for that,” Neguse said. “Monopoly.”
Representatives from the tech firms batted away such accusations, claiming that consumers have plenty of options in the marketplace. Take, for example, the well-known Google competitor… Travelocity.
“When consumers search for information, they can choose between Amazon, Yelp, Microsoft, Travelocity, and many other companies like these that consistently report strong user growth,” Adam Cohen, director of economic policy at Google, said during prepared remarks. “If you don’t want to use Google, there are many information providers available.”
Upon grilling from Rep. David Cicilline, who twice reminded him he was testifying under oath, Amazon Associate General Counsel Nate Sutton said that his company does not use the massive caches of user data it collects to tailor its own product lines.
“Our incentive is to help the seller succeed because we rely on them,” Sutton said. “If we did that, we know they’d go elsewhere. They have many options.”
The House hearing came as Senators on the other side of Capitol Hill hammered a top Google lobbyist over content moderation and alleged bias against conservatives. There is little evidence showing Google censors right-leaning voices in a systematic way, but Google and other tech firms publicize limited internal data to begin with.
And Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley pointed to the company’s attempt to secretly build a regime-friendly search engine in China as proof it could do something similar in the U.S.
“You’ve been more than willing to engage in ideological censorship in the largest market in the world,” said Hawley, whose star has risen in the GOP in part through outspoken criticism of Big Tech. “Why would we believe anything Google says about what it does or doesn’t do in terms of promoting an ideological agenda?”
Tech executives have bent over backward to assure conservatives that their companies have no political agenda, even while acknowledging that Silicon Valley workforces lean left. Karan Bhatia, Google’s VP of governmental affairs and public policy, similarly told Hawley that putting its finger on the scale isn’t in its business interest.
“I don’t know what answer you’re looking for,” Bhatia said at one point.
Cover: File photo shows tech giants' logos: (clockwise from top R) Google LLC, Amazon.com Inc. and Facebook Inc. (Kyodo via AP Images)