Testifying last week before a US congressional antitrust committee, the chief executives of four of the world's largest technology companies – Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple, which are actually four of the world's largest anything companies – faced a barrage of withering questions from legislators.
The four, all of whom appeared virtually, were Apple's Tim Cook, Google's Sundar Pichai, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon's Jeff Bezos. Each made an opening statement and responded to questions, constrained in his own little video-call rectangle whose backgrounds and general feng shui were swiftly and comically analysed by online audiences.
How did they do, when taken to task on complex issues such as market dominance and control, opaque operations and decision-making, mass data gathering, and huge and potentially market-throttling acquisitions?
Their replies and overall performance certainly raised more questions than they answered, even allowing for the less-than-productive theatrics of such hearings, and their detail-quashing rapid-fire format.
In many ways this event was all about the questions, rather than the replies. The dramatic setting offered relatively easy targets for congressional representatives to score points, with voters increasingly disaffected with how these companies operate. Asking a pointed question highlighted important concerns, and laying out the concerns was the point.
Many times, the chief executives weren’t allowed much time to reply or were interrupted with the next question. Often, that didn’t matter one jot, because the answers were never going to be comprehensive (no time for that) or open or engaged. This was always going to be a damage-limitation exercise for the chief executives.
And yet, if that was their one job, they failed. Cook struggled to justify Apple's App Store policies and corporate actions. Bezos, slowly roasted by his own congresswoman and others, faced accusations of suppressing competition and anti-competitive below-cost selling. Zuckerberg was shredded over Facebook's acquisition of potential rival Instagram. Pichai stuttered his way through hard questions about Google acquisitions.
All four appeared underprepared for obvious antitrust-oriented questions, or worse, to be unfamiliar with controversies and existing evidence surrounding some of their companies’ biggest actions and acquisitions. Such apparent gaps in knowledge in any company’s chief executive beggars belief.
Or, it implies a boardroom insularity that extends to approving decisions that were never closely examined, a profound lack of personal engagement with any public or regulatory concerns, perhaps legal teams unprepared to present basic risks inherent in some of these decisions, or PR teams that didn’t prepare the boss for painfully obvious questions. Or just deployment of that ever-useful fallback, “I don’t recall.”
Who knows? What can be said is that some of the replies would flag potential antitrust violations (suppressing competitors, reversing promises to public bodies, reducing or eliminating competition). The chiefs’ denials that their firms are powerful industry-controlling titans will also have been undercut by the analyst-beating and even record-breaking earnings they reported only the next day, which added a collective $250 billion to their valuations.
Closer to home, the five-hour plus hearings gave fresh context to a story that emerged at the same time here, regarding the version of the Irish Covid tracker app that runs on Google’s Android operating system.
A new report from Trinity College Dublin researchers, highlighted by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and several data experts, noted that while the app itself claims not to gather any identifying information, Android collects identifying information about all users of apps on Android phones, and sends it back to Google, several times an hour. This includes information about apps on a person’s phone, individual handset identifiers, location data and the ability to link it to a person’s email address.
Some protested that this was not an issue with the app, but “just” a feature of Android. “Just” the trade-off for having a mobile these days.
But such background surveillance is the big issue.
Surveillance is an operational default. Users cannot opt out without shutting down much of the basic operability of their Android phone. There’s no informed consent – a pillar of compliance with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. If even developers were debating what happens, if it happens, how it happens, and when it happens in the wake of the report, how can the average phone user have ever given informed consent to whatever it is that happens?
And while the Covid app itself may not have surveillance built in, it is built upon an operating platform that does. That was a development choice, and Android users have zero options here.
That’s a reminder of what legislators were emphasising in the hearings last week.
“It is Google’s business model that is the problem,” said the committee’s chairman, David Cicilline.
Tech giants' business models are everyone's problem. We'll have to wait and see whether Congress, or the EU, decides to do anything about them, though Cicilline's closing statement gave some indication of the possibilities: "Some [companies] need to be broken up. All need to be properly regulated and held accountable."