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Five key moments from the big tech grilling

BBC Technology 30 Jul 2020 04:31
By Chris Fox Technology reporter
Sundar Pichai, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Tim CookImage copyright Reuters

The heads of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google owner Alphabet appeared before US lawmakers on Wednesday night to defend their companies against claims they abuse their power to squash competitors.

Here are five key moments from the hearing.

1. Mark Zuckerberg's emails revealed

Did Facebook buy Instagram in 2012 to neutralise a threat? That was the topic raised by Democratic representative Jerry Nadler.

Emails between Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and his chief financial officer David Ebersman were revealed as part of the hearing.

In one, Mr Zuckerberg said: "These businesses are nascent but the networks established, the brands are already meaningful, and if they grow to a large scale they could be very disruptive to us... I'm curious if we should consider going after one or two of them."

Mr Ebersman asked if Mr Zuckerberg hoped to "neutralise a potential competitor".

The slide presenting this email to Congress was titled "Whoops!", tech news site the Verge reported.

In another email, he had said it would be a while before Facebook could afford to buy Google. At the hearing, Mr Zuckerberg said the comment was a joke.

Democratic congressman Henry Johnson raised concerns about Apple's App Store, suggesting its rules were sometimes "changed to benefit Apple at the expense of [third-party] developers" and also discriminated between different creators.

"We have open and transparent rules... we do look at every app before it goes on. But those apps, those rules apply evenly to everyone."

In April 2020, Apple introduced a scheme that let video-streaming platforms avoid the 30% fee if they integrated with other Apple products, as news site Bloomberg reported. Amazon is part of this deal.

In another email, sent a decade ago, Mr Cue suggested Apple could take a 40% cut rather than 30%.

3. Republicans accuse the tech giants of bias

Republican congressman Jim Sensenbrenner asked Mark Zuckerberg why Twitter had removed a post by the US president's son, Donald Trump Jr, discussing the efficacy of the drug hydroxychloroquine.

"I think what you might be referring to happened on Twitter, so it's hard for me to speak to that," said Mr Zuckerberg.

Image copyright EPA

"Can you assure us you are not going to silence conservatives and... you're not going to configure your features [to favour] Joe Biden?" asked Mr Jordan.

Democrat Mary Gay Scanlon suggested Mr Jordan had been pushing "fringe conspiracy theories".

Later, Republican representative Greg Steube was teased online for asking Mr Pichai why his campaign emails were being marked as spam in Gmail.

Democratic congresswoman Pramila Jayapal asked Jeff Bezos for a "yes or no" answer: Did Amazon ever use seller data to make its own business decisions?

Mr Bezos responded that he couldn't give an answer in such simple terms.

Mr Bezos was not asked any questions for the first hour of the hearing, and was seen on the video call eating a snack.

"It appears to me that social media is a nuance-destruction machine, and I don't think that's helpful for democracy," the Amazon founder said.

Republican congressman Matt Gaetz claimed that Google collaborates with Chinese universities that take "millions upon millions of dollars from the Chinese military" and noted that tech investor Peter Thiel had previously accused the company of "treason".

"We are not working with the Chinese military, it's absolutely false," he said.

The four bosses were also asked a yes-or-no question by Republican Greg Steube: "Do you believe the Chinese government is stealing technology from US companies?"

Tim Cook said: "I don't know of specific cases where we have been stolen from by the government."

Mark Zuckerberg said: "I think it's well documented that the Chinese government steals technology from US companies."

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