Sundar Pichai, Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg
Sundar Pichai, Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg

On Wednesday, the chief executives of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google face an unprecedented joint hearing in Washington as their companies face growing concerns about their size and power.

Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai are due to appear in front of the House Antitrust Subcommittee, although the hearing is likely to take place virtually, avoiding the spectacle of the four men standing side by side.

The companies have faced charges of allowing election meddling, helping to spread fake news, failing to protect vulnerable users, and of developing addictive technology. But Wednesday’s hearing is focused on whether the companies are unfairly crushing competition or abusing their power.

The hearing is set for Noon in Washington (5pm UK time) on Wednesday. Here is what’s at stake for each of the companies, and their chiefs:

Google

Chief executive: Sundar Pichai
Market value: $1 trillion

In its 22 years, Google has morphed from a search engine into a slick advertising machine that touches on almost every aspect of peoples’ online lives, from email, their smartphones, booking travel, shopping and even how they control their household appliances. 

Many price comparison websites, publishers and small businesses have accused Google of wiping out their profits through decades of acquisition, increasing the dominance of its advertising business and promotion of its own services above its rivals in its search engine.

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai - Washington Post
Google chief executive Sundar Pichai – Washington Post

Critics say that Google has too much power because businesses are no longer just buying advertising from the company, but actively competing against it. Its dominant positions in search and internet advertising makes it the most likely target of monopoly charges out of the major tech companies.

While this is not a crime, Google has been fined three times by the European Commission since 2017, totalling €8.4bn (£7.4bn), for unfairly promoting its own services above competitors. 

These battles make Google, and Pichai, a veteran of competition investigations. The company has consistently argued that it makes life easier for consumers, and that since its services are free, it is easy to switch to rivals, with “competition just a click away”.

Pichai, a bookish and well-rehearsed operator, is likely to calmly address questions in technical and dry terms. The less news he creates, the better for Google.

Amazon

Chief executive: Jeff Bezos
Market value: $1.5 trillion

While Amazon is one of the world’s biggest retailers, more than half of what it sells come not from the company itself, but millions of third-party sellers who use the website as a way of reaching millions of customers.

The company faces scrutiny over how it treats these sellers. Critics argue that it uses the significant amounts of data it holds to create a competitive advantage, often using sales information to copy successful products and harm sellers in the process.

Amazon has also been accused of promoting its own products in search results and product recommendations, putting them at an unfair advantage to rival sellers. 

Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos - AFP
Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos – AFP

The company denies using the information it gathers to develop competing products, and says its use of data is the norm in the e-commerce world, pointing out that its competitors use it to improve customer service. “The full range of competing products and their prices are fully visible and apparent to all,” it said in May. 

Unlike the other tech executives present, Bezos has never faced a Congressional grilling, and attempts to humble the world’s richest man – especially one whose Washington Post newspaper has often antagonised the president – may well overshadow competition questions.

Facebook

Chief executive: Mark Zuckerberg
Market value: $658bn

In his first visit to Congress in 2018, Mark Zuckerberg was asked a simple question: “Who’s your biggest competitor?” He struggled to answer: The company owns Instagram and WhatsApp, while Twitter, Snapchat and Telegram are minnows by comparison.

The competition case against Facebook therefore starts with sheer size. With a total monthly audience of almost three billion across its services, it is more populous than country or religion, making it inescapable in “display” advertising (as opposed to search). Its recent advertising boycott only cemented its centrality: many advertisers have nowhere else to go.

Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg - AP
Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg – AP

Judging by his prepared testimony, Zuckerberg will not address that. Instead he will seek to widen the field of competition to embrace all Facebook’s projects, arguing that its controversial acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp made both services better for consumers. He will also highlight his battle with Chinese companies – implicitly warning that US over-regulation could mean ceding its technological dominance. 

As for the man himself, Zuckerberg has improved since his robotic, lip-licking debut. Expect a polished performance that skates over awkward facts, but which may break down under sustained, specific questioning.

Apple

Chief executive: Tim Cook
Market value: $1.6 trillion

Apple has a minority share of the global market for smartphones, so is not a monopoly in the traditional sense, but that fact has done little to silence claims that it is using the iPhone’s power unfairly.

Competition scrutiny of the company focuses largely on the App Store, the portal for downloading and installing apps on Apple devices. Because Apple does not allow apps to be downloaded via other means, it exercises total control over the App Store. That means apps from YouTube to Candy Crush Saga must follow strict rules and pay Apple’s fees of up to 30pc for digital services.

Tim Cook at a hearing about taxes in 2013 - Bloomberg
Tim Cook at a hearing about taxes in 2013 – Bloomberg

In recent years, developers have revolted against these terms, saying Apple’s fees amount to rent seeking. The likes of Netflix and Tinder have stopped selling subscriptions through the App Store. 

Spotify has claimed the rules give Apple’s rival Music service – which does not have to pay such a commission -–an advantage. And a host of other developers have raised objections, but say they fear reprisals if they speak out publicly.

The European Commission recently launched an investigation into the App Store as well as the Apple Pay service following Spotify’s complaints. 

Cook, a practised and charismatic public speaker, is unlikely to sweat under Congressional questioning. Apple argues that its App Store rates are not unusual by industry standards, and its strict control of the service protects consumers.

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