Tech Hearing Live: C.E.O.s Bezos, Zuckerberg, Cook and Pichai Face Congress

Democrats on the committee quickly dug into the issue of competition, citing documents obtained from inside the tech companies that they said showed their anti-competitive conduct.

Representative David Cicilline, the chairman of the antitrust subcommittee, grilled Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, about how Google steers traffic to its own search pages and products. Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York asked Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s top executive, about emails he wrote describing Instagram as a potentially disruptive competitor before the company acquired the firm. And Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia pushed Tim Cook of Apple on whether his company exerts unfair dominance over app developers in its app store.

In multiple cases, the chief executives evaded the questions, claiming not to know specifics about the documents or interactions in question.

Mr. Cicilline, who has led the investigation into the tech giants for more than a year, opened the hearing with a broadside against the companies, saying their dominance harms the economy and leaves consumers with no choice but to use their products.

“Any single action by one of these companies can affect hundreds of millions of us in profound and lasting ways,” Mr. Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, said in his opening statement. “Simply put: They have too much power.”

Mr. Cicilline is in control of many aspects of the hearing, including how many rounds of questions lawmakers get. That may allow him to extend lines of questioning in an attempt to dig deeper than an initial five minutes allows.

Mr. Cicilline, who used to be the mayor of Providence, has become a prominent foe of the technology platforms from his perch as the top Democrat on the once-quiet subcommittee. For more than a year, his staff has led the investigation, conducting hundreds of hours of interviews and collecting 1.3 million documents. The team has grown to include Lina Khan, a legal scholar who wrote a major law review note on Amazon’s power, and Phillip Berenbroick, previously the policy director at the consumer group Public Knowledge.

Mr. Cicilline spent recent months negotiating to secure the appearance by the chief executives. The process was not always friendly. When the committee demanded that Mr. Bezos testify, Amazon responded with a noncommittal letter. Mr. Cicilline threatened to subpoena Mr. Bezos before the company agreed to make him available to answer the panel’s questions.

“Our founders would not bow before a king,” Mr. Cicilline said Wednesday. “Nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy.”

Republicans spent much of their time steering away from antitrust and competition, instead asking about the tech giants’ efforts in China and unproven claims that the companies suppress conservative views.

Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, spent his opening statements listing anecdotes where Republican officials had been subject to enforcement actions by the platforms’ rules. (He did not mention that conservative publications and figures routinely rank among the top performing pages on Facebook and other platforms.)

“I’ll just cut to the chase, Big Tech’s out to get conservatives,” said Mr. Jordan. He later asked Mr. Pichai whether or not Google would take efforts to help Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden Jr.

The claims about conservative bias are a persistent, if largely unproven, gripe among Republicans. President Trump, Attorney General William P. Barr and lawmakers like Mr. Jordan and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas have all raised concerns that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube purposely downplay or remove conservative voices on their sites.

The suspicions rise from the accurate perception that Silicon Valley is dominated by liberal-leaning workers. In November 2018, Facebook removed an ad by an anti-abortion group endorsing Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee. Facebook said it did so because an image on the ad that appeared to violate its community norms. That example and others have fueled suspicion of conservative censorship.

Mr. Trump recently issued an executive order curtailing safe harbors for internet companies in retaliation against his perceptions of bias. The order was issued after Twitter labeled a set of his tweets in late May for misinformation.

Representative Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida, asked the chief executive of Google about the company’s decision to drop a Defense Department project after employees expressed concerns.

When they were asking about antitrust, some Republicans expressed caution about tighter regulation.

“Big isn’t inherently bad,” said Representative James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican. Representative Ken Buck, a Republican of Colorado, said: “Our witnesses have taken ideas born out of a dorm room, a garage. You have enjoyed the freedom to succeed. I do not believe big is necessarily bad. In fact, big is often a force for good.”

We tracked which tech C.E.O. was under the most scrutiny by tallying the number of questions they are getting asked. The results were striking.




‘Very Easy For Users to Be In Control of Their Data,’ Google C.E.O. Says

Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, faced questions from Representative Val Demings about user data and privacy.

Demings: “So while Google had to care about user privacy in 2007, it no longer had to in 2016. Would you agree that what changed was Google gained enormous market power?” “Congresswoman, this is an important issue. If I could explain. Well, you know, we today make it very easy for users to be in control of their data. We have simplified their settings. They can turn ads personalization on or off. We have combined most activity settings into three groupings, we remind users to go to a privacy checkup — one billion users at a time —” “OK Mr. Pichai, thank you so much for that. I am concerned that Google’s bait and switch with DoubleClick is part of a broader pattern where Google buys up companies for the purposes of surveilling Americans and because of Google’s dominance, users have no choice but to surrender. The more user data that Google collects, the more money Google can make — more user data means more money. Is that correct?” “In general, that’s not true. For example —” “More user data, not the more money Google collects? I’m sorry. Please, so you’re saying that the more user data does not mean the more money that Google can collect?” “Congresswoman, most of the data today we collect is to help users.”

Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, faced questions from Representative Val Demings about user data and privacy.

Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Google’s parent company Alphabet, was a consistent target of aggressive questions — surprising, given that he had testified a year ago and that he has the lowest profile of the executives testifying Wednesday — about its search engine and the company’s decision to withdraw from a Pentagon project after employee protests about the work.

Representative David Cicilline, the chairman of the antitrust subcommittee, accused Google of lifting content from other websites to keep users within what he called the “walled garden” of its search engine in order to make more money from advertising.

“The evidence seems very clear to me as Google became the gateway to the internet, it began to abuse its power and use its surveillance over the web traffic to identify competitive threats and crush them,” Mr. Cicilline said.

Mr. Pichai disagreed with that characterization and fell back on the company’s talking points that Google search has lots of competitors for specific categories, such as Amazon in shopping. He also said that the majority of Google’s search results did not carry ads and that it was acting in the best interest of users when it highlights answers to queries. Google’s global market share in search is 92 percent, according to data from Statcounter, an online research tool.

Because Google is so dominant, other websites rely on the search engine for traffic. In recent years, the Silicon Valley giant has started to devote real estate at the top of search results to providing its own answers for information about local businesses, flights and hotels. This has angered other websites whose traffic has slid as Google surfaces more information on its own search results.

Republicans zeroed in on Google pulling out of an effort to help the Pentagon build technology systems to analyze drone footage to identify particular objects like buildings, vehicles and people. Google’s employees protested the company’s work on the project.

Representatives Ken Buck from Colorado and Matt Gaetz from Florida, two of the Republicans on the panel, questioned why Google pulled back from the Pentagon, while continuing to operate an artificial intelligence lab in China. Mr. Pichai denied one of their accusations that Google still works with the Chinese military and noted that the company still worked with the U.S. military, including a cybersecurity project with the Defense Department.

Credit…Pool photo by Graeme Jennings

The House judiciary antitrust subcommittee has said it gathered 1.3 million documents about Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple over the course of its 13-month investigation into the power of the companies’ businesses. At the hearing, lawmakers began rolling some of those documents out.

Several of the documents were about Facebook and the desire of its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, to buy the photo-sharing app Instagram as a way of quashing a competitive threat. The social network bought Instagram in 2012 for about $1 billion in cash and stock.

In those documents, which were reviewed by The New York Times, Mr. Zuckerberg pressed Kevin Systrom, a co-founder of Instagram, to submit to Facebook’s original acquisition offer of $500 million. In other correspondence, Facebook’s chief financial officer at the time specifically pointed at Instagram as a “competitive threat” that needed to be dealt with.

The documents were evidence that Facebook viewed Instagram as a “powerful threat that could siphon business away from Facebook,” Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, said in the hearing. “Rather than compete with it, Facebook bought it.”

In response, Mr. Zuckerberg said that while it seemed in hindsight that Instagram’s success was an inevitability, it was far from certain at the time. Instagram had many competitors at that point, he said, including now defunct start-ups such as Path.

“The acquisition has done wildly well not just because of the founders’ talent, but because we invested heavily in building up the infrastructure and promoting it,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “And I think that this has been an American success story.”

In the hearing’s first several hours, Apple’s Tim Cook was largely ignored. In the last hour, he found himself on the defense.

First, Representatives Val Demings and Lucy Kay McBath, Democrats from Florida and Georgia, needled him on why Apple removed parental-control apps shortly after Apple introduced its own competing tool in 2018. The Times reported about the removal of the apps last year.

Mr. Cook said Apple pulled the apps because of privacy concerns, not competition. Ms. McBath then pointed to an email that appeared to show a top Apple executive, Phil Schiller, telling a concerned parent that they could now use Apple’s parental-control tool instead. Mr. Cook said he could not see the email on his screen.

Mr. Cook then found himself defending Apple’s recent demands to collect a commission from Airbnb and ClassPass after the companies shifted to selling virtual classes because of the pandemic, as The Times reported this week.

Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, asked: “Isn’t this pandemic profiteering?”

Mr. Cook responded that Apple’s rules require companies that sell digital services to pay Apple’s commission, but that Apple was working with companies that had made business changes because of the pandemic.

Apple told The Times this week that it was still negotiating with Airbnb and ClassPass on the fees. Earlier this month, ClassPass pulled its virtual classes from its iPhone app because Apple told the company that its deadline for complying with the rule had passed, according to a person close to ClassPass who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private negotiations.

Apple faces accusations that it arbitrarily enforces its rules on app developers, killing some of their businesses on a whim.

In Tim Cook’s opening statement, he said that Apple’s App Store rules are “applied equally to every developer.”

Earlier in the hearing, Democrats on the House antitrust subcommittee tried to show that wasn’t true.

Representative Hank Johnson, Democrat of Georgia, asked if Baidu, the Chinese search giant, got special treatment. Mr. Cook responded that he wasn’t sure. The committee then released documents that appeared to show Mr. Cook telling Baidu’s chief executive in a 2014 email that Baidu would be on an “app review fast track” and that two employees would help manage the process.

Mr. Johnson later pointed out that Apple now lets Amazon avoid Apple’s 30 percent commission on its video-streaming service — one of the main complaints against Apple by developers — in exchange for making Amazon and Apple products work better together. Mr. Cook responded that any other company could get the same deal.

Mr. Cook argued that Apple had to treat app developers fairly and had to be competitive in the commission it charges. “We have fierce competition at the developer side and the customer side,” he said. “It’s so competitive, I would describe it as a street fight for market share in the smartphone business.”

In reality, the market for smartphone software is a clear duopoly. Apple and Google make the software that underpins virtually every smartphone in the world.




Bezos Grilled About Amazon’s ‘Predatory Practices’

Jeff Bezos of Amazon faced questions from Representative Mary Gay Scanlon about how his company drives up prices through eliminating competition.

“So how would customers, especially single moms, new families, how would they benefit when the prices were driven up by the fact that you’ve eliminated your main competitor?” “Well, I don’t agree — with great respect — I don’t agree with that premise. At the same time, you should recognize in context, diapers is a very large product category sold in many, many places, not just —” “Right, this was the online diaper market. Now we do have evidence that these predatory — I’m sorry, Mr. Bezos, I need to push on here. The evidence we’ve collected suggests that the predatory practices weren’t unique here. In 2013, it was reported that you instructed Amazon employees to approach discussions with certain business partners, and I quote, ‘The way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.’ Is the ‘Gazelle’ project still in place? And does Amazon pursue similar predatory campaigns in other parts of its business?” “I cannot comment on that because I don’t remember it. What I can tell you is that we are very, very focused on the customer, as you started and of course, that does —” “I’m concerned with the customers as well, especially the families in my district. I’m sorry, Mr. Bezos. Well, I’m almost out of time. I’m concerned too, because especially with the current pandemic, one of the biggest needs I’m seeing at the food drives and the giveaways that we’re having to run in my district, is that families don’t have diapers and we have to collect them to give them out.”

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Jeff Bezos of Amazon faced questions from Representative Mary Gay Scanlon about how his company drives up prices through eliminating competition.

Facing Congress for the first time, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and chief executive, was forced to defend one of Amazon’s sources of great pride: its relationship with the many third-party sellers whose products fill its online store.

At the start of the hearing, Mr. Bezos introduced himself as a lucky and humble example of the success of American democracy — the son of a plucky mother and a supportive, immigrant father who “fostered my curiosity and encouraged me to dream big.” He said he brought that ethos to Amazon, saying the company’s growth has benefited Americans.

“Customer obsession has driven our success,” he said.

But once Mr. Bezos faced questions, almost entirely from Democrats, he had to respond to whether Amazon harms the sellers whose products make up about 60 percent of its sales.

Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat whose district includes Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, said former Amazon employees told the committee that employees treat proprietary seller data like “a candy shop” they can mine to develop products Amazon’s own, competing house brand. Representative Lucy McBath said that, when sellers talked to the committee, “they use the words like bullying, fear, and panic to describe their relationship with Amazon.” Representative David Cicilline, the chairman of the antitrust subcommittee, said one seller compared Amazon to a drug dealer.

Mr. Bezos said he disagreed with Mr. Cicilline’s characterization, and he told Ms. McBath that “third party sellers in aggregate are doing extremely well on Amazon.” He said to Ms. Jayapal that Amazon has “a policy against using seller-specific data to aid our private label business, but I can’t guarantee you that that policy has never been violated.”

He several times said that sellers have benefited from Amazon’s growth and investment. He said when Amazon decided two decades ago to invite third-party sellers to offer products on its retail website, Amazon thought that more selection would let both Amazon and the sellers thrive.

When faced with data from Mr. Cicilline that Amazon controls 75 percent of all online marketplace sales, Mr. Bezos responded, “With great respect, I do have a different opinion on that.” He said that sellers have “a lot of options. “I believe Amazon is a great one and we have worked very hard,” he said. “I think we are the best one.”

Ms. Jayapal pushed Mr. Bezos on what happens to employees who violate its internal policies. She said Amazon has “access to data that far exceeds the sellers on your platforms with whom you compete,” such as how many shoppers looked at an item but did not buy it.

Mr. Bezos began responding that he was “very proud of what we have done for third-party sellers on this platform,” before Ms. Jayapal cut him off saying she was running out of time.

How often do tech titans repeat themselves? How many times did the chief executives fall back on buzzwords and catchphrases? And how frequently did they bring up their rivals (TikTok! Walmart! Each other!) to downplay their companies’ power?

To answer these questions, we kept track of how often Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Sundar Pichai of Google, Tim Cook of Apple and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook used certain arguments and phrases throughout the course of the antitrust hearing.

We Are Not That Big

Each time a C.E.O. argued that his company was not actually that powerful because its market share was small or its influence was limited.

On Repeat


Mark Zuckerberg


Jeff Bezos


Tim Cook


Sundar Pichai


We Are Good for America

Each time a C.E.O. boasted about how his company has added jobs, fueled economic growth, accelerated innovation or otherwise helped the country.

On Repeat


Mark Zuckerberg


Jeff Bezos


Tim Cook


Sundar Pichai


We Will Get Back to You

Each time a C.E.O. didn’t directly answer a question, saying instead that he would respond after the company looked into the matter.

On Repeat


Mark Zuckerberg


Jeff Bezos


Tim Cook


Sundar Pichai


We Are Not the Ones to Worry About

Each time a C.E.O. tried to shift attention by citing a competitor or the specter of how China could dominate tech if their own companies were curtailed.

On Repeat


Mark Zuckerberg


Jeff Bezos


Tim Cook


Sundar Pichai


In the pandemic era, videoconferencing has become a primary means of conversation. Also, we’ve become very judgmental about the decor of our co-workers. So how did Big Tech’s executives fare in their congressional hearing on Wednesday?

We were inspired by the popular Twitter account RoomRater, which judges and rates the backgrounds of people on video calls on a scale of one to 10. In that spirit, here are our armchair ratings for the rooms in which the C.E.O.s of Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook appeared during their testimonies.

Credit…Pool photo by Mandel Ngan

Sundar Pichai: Tasteful minimalism, muted and cold color palette. Sitting in front of a midcentury modern bureau, with a small stack of unidentified books and small pottery with a pleasant aloe plant. Reading from printed documents. Textured wall hanging, likely of stone.

7/10 for being relatable without going over the top.

Tim Cook: Extremely minimal background, even for Apple. Opted for bare, taupe-colored walls with a slate planter flanking him. A smattering of greenery livens up the background, but not too wild as if it were a jungle. The hint of a computer screen — a Macbook — in front of him for notes.

6/10 because we expected something more sleek from Apple.

Jeff Bezos: The warmest setting of the bunch. Mr. Bezos sat in what looks like his Seattle office, backed by a full wall of built-in bookcases. Gold-plated statue looks kind of like a funky atom or a scientific award. Nice pottery and vases.

8/10 for the cool Pacific Northwest dad office vibes. Two points subtracted for his connectivity issues.

Mark Zuckerberg: Almost completely devoid of character. Stark white wooden plank background — perhaps shiplap, the favorite of home decorating star Joanna Gaines? The only distinguishing marks are two little knobs in the wood that look like drawer handles. No plants, no books, no warmth. Reading from a teleprompter. The setting is so inoffensive it borders on offensive. But points for whoever staged his lighting and camera. The focus is, unavoidably, Mr. Zuckerberg.

4/10 for its complete lack of personality. (Next time show us a bookshelf.)

They didn’t look like titans. They didn’t look like masters of the universe. They didn’t look like “emperors of the online economy,” as Representative David Cicilline, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and Democrat from Rhode Island, called them.

“They” — the four chief executives of Big Tech, Jeff Bezos of Amazon; Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook; Tim Cook of Apple; and Sundar Pichai of Alphabet, the parent company of Google — didn’t even look all that big.

In fact, beamed in from their offices because of coronavirus concerns, facing down the mask-clad congressmen who were socially distanced from each other on the wood-paneled stage of the hearing room in the Rayburn office building like an establishment army, they looked more like boys dressed up in their graduation suits than the four horsemen of the digital apocalypse whose planetary power was a threat to us all.

The costumes were donned with purpose.

Mr. Zuckerberg, for example, framed against a plain white background that resembled barn siding, wore a blue suit and a blue and white checked tie that had been pulled down and was slightly askew, as though he had stuck one finger inside so he could take a deep breath.

Mr. Cook chose a light gray tie — the same gray as his glasses frames — the knot listing just off to one side, and a dark gray suit, with a whole Zen planter’s worth of verdant greenery spilling out behind him. He sipped from a mug of tea.

Mr. Pichai also appeared in a subtly patterned gray tie, though his echoed the patterned artwork on the wall behind him and perfectly matched his gray suit. Which matched his hair and beard, which matched the gray pottery on the filing cabinet behind him, out of which bloomed his own healthily lush green plant — one part of an artistic and minimal still life. He sat with his hands clasped on the desk in front of him, radiating a sort of beneficent calm.

And Mr. Bezos, in his first-ever appearance in Congress, offset his dark suit and tie with some homey light wood shelving, scattered with vases and other decorative objects, and sustained himself with snacks kept just offscreen.

Snacks! He’s just like you and me.

Which was, of course, the point. If you are trying to convince a group of lawmakers that the words they keep using to describe you — “dominant,” “power,” “billions,” “trillions” — are not nearly the whole story, you don’t want to limit your message to your humble beginnings and crazy dreams. You want to channel Clark Kent, rather than Superman.

Credit…Pete Marovich for The New York Times

The tech giants are under investigation from numerous federal and state antitrust officials, as well as by the lawmakers holding today’s hearing.

The Justice Department’s investigation of Google appears to be the furthest along. The agency is expected to soon announce a case against Google, focusing on alleged antitrust violations in online advertising.

The Federal Trade Commission is preparing to depose Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, and other top executives at the company for its investigation of the social network. That inquiry appears to focus on whether Facebook illegally maintained a monopoly in social networking by killing off competition through its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp. That investigation may not wrap up before the end of the year.

Other investigations are moving forward, but not as swiftly as the Google investigation. The Justice Department is also investigating Apple’s power over the app store, along with state attorneys general. The agency has Facebook under review as well, looking at the company’s position in online advertising. But that investigation appears to be moving slowly.

State investigators have been looking into whether Amazon abuses its power over sellers on the tech giant’s site. The F.T.C. is also investigating Amazon, but that appears to be moving slowly.

The Trump administration asked the Federal Communications Commission this week to narrow its interpretation of a law that shields internet platforms like Facebook and YouTube from certain lawsuits over the content they host.

The request, which stems from an executive order President Trump signed in May, is part of a growing push by the president and his allies, who say that tech companies are removing or suppressing conservative content. Despite evidence that conservative sites and figures perform well online, the president, along with much of his conservative base, have repeatedly criticized the platforms over instances in which conservative content was removed or otherwise moderated for violating a platform’s rules.

In a petition on Monday, the Department of Commerce asked the commission to clarify that the law, known as Section 230, does not protect a platform when it moderates or highlights user content based on a “reasonably discernible viewpoint or message, without having been prompted to, asked to, or searched for by the user.” It would also limit the circumstances under which platforms are protected from liability over their users’ content.

Kayleigh McEnany, the White House spokeswoman, said in a statement on Wednesday morning that the president wants the F.C.C. “to clarify that Section 230 does not permit social media companies that alter or editorialize users’ speech to escape civil liability.”

Mr. Trump weighed in later on Twitter:

The petition is now in the hands of the F.C.C., an independent agency currently led by a Republican chairman, Ajit Pai, who was appointed to the position by Mr. Trump. “The F.C.C. will carefully review the petition,” said Brian Hart, a spokesman for the commission.

Members of Congress have been mocked for asking ridiculous questions in technology hearings like these. That might happen again today, but it won’t be entirely their fault.

These big tech companies intentionally make themselves hard to understand.

Few people outside these companies can truly examine how Amazon influences prices of products we buy on its site or at other retailers; or assess fears that Google funnels people to its own websites, Apple steers people to its own apps or Facebook peers into what we do online to squash its rivals. All of this is, by design, shrouded in secrecy and mystery.

Big Tech shouldn’t want it to stay that way. Even companies like Facebook and Google are asking for more government guidance and rules around thorny topics like protecting elections and preventing hate speech on their sites. That means that the public and the tech companies have a vested interest in making these fact-finding sessions as productive as possible.

Read more in On Tech.

You can sign up here for On Tech with Shira Ovide, a newsletter each weekday about how technology is reshaping our lives and world.

Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Congressional hearings usually involve witnesses appearing in dark suits, with their entourages sitting behind them and lawmakers questioning them from above as phalanxes of photographers snap pictures and videographers stream the proceedings from a cavernous room at the Capitol.

Not this time.

The C.E.O.s of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google are all appearing on Wednesday before a House subcommittee virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic. Remotely beaming into the hearing adds a wrinkle of digital complexity, with any note-passing from aides and underlings most likely happening off-camera.

And while many of the tech giants make their own video-calling software, none will be using their own tools. Instead, they will all be joining via Cisco’s Webex videoconferencing service.

Webex has been the go-to service for Congress since the pandemic began. It has been certified by the House’s administration committee for being secure and meeting “business and technical requirements,” a House administration spokesman, Peter Whippy, said.

In that time, Webex has been used for more than 100 congressional hearings, said Jean Rosauer, Webex’s head of government sector. Cisco added that it had experienced more than triple its normal volume of virtual meetings through Webex in recent months.

“Congressional hearings — such as the upcoming House Judiciary Committee hearing — have traditions, policies and procedures, and we had to ensure those could be conducted virtually and securely,” Ms. Rosauer said in a statement. She added that Cisco was “incredibly proud” to play a role in keeping Congress connected.


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Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sundar Pichai of Google will answer questions from House lawmakers about their business practices.CreditCredit…Pool photo by Mandel Ngan
Credit…Jesse Grant/Getty Images

Many competitors to Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon have been busy talking to House lawmakers for months about those companies’ power. And some deliberately spoke out this week to position themselves for how they would be portrayed in the hearing and to influence the questioning.

TikTok, the Chinese-owned video app, issued a statement from its chief executive, Kevin Mayer, on Wednesday morning. In it, he addressed how the app — which Facebook is likely to cite in the hearing as an example of how competition in social networking is thriving — has been dealing with scrutiny because of its Chinese ownership.

“We have received even more scrutiny due to the company’s Chinese origins,” Mr. Mayer said in the statement. “We accept this and embrace the challenge of giving peace of mind through greater transparency and accountability. We believe it is essential to show users, advertisers, creators and regulators that we are responsible and committed members of the American community that follows U.S. laws.”

He also pointed to Facebook’s willingness to launch “copycat products,” like Reels, a TikTok look-alike. Facebook has had a history of emulating competing products.

“Let’s focus our energies on fair and open competition in service of our consumers, rather than maligning attacks by our competitor — namely Facebook — disguised as patriotism and designed to put an end to our very presence in the U.S.,” Mr. Mayer said.

Other tech companies also seized on the hearing to air their thoughts. Tim Sweeney, chief executive of Epic Games, the Cary, N.C.-based maker of the hit game Fortnite, lashed out at Apple and Google for price gouging and unfair policies in what he called their “app store monopolies.”

“Both stores significantly obstruct competition,” Mr. Sweeney said in an interview on Tuesday. He particularly criticized Apple’s 30 percent fee on payments for digital goods, which he said made it difficult for smaller players to offer artists a better deal.

Apple has said the 30 percent commission it takes from many apps in its App Store is a standard fee. Mr. Sweeney called that argument “silly nonsense.” Epic’s version of an app store charges its developers a 12 percent fee.

Mr. Sweeney, who began programming on an Apple II Plus computer in 1982 and founded Epic nine years later, said he felt a responsibility to speak out.

“Every tech company that does business in this world is going to have to live with the power we give these other companies,” he said.

After lawmakers collected hundreds of hours of interviews and obtained more than 1.3 million documents about Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, their chief executives will testify before Congress at 1 p.m. on Wednesday to defend their powerful businesses.

The captains of the New Gilded Age — Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sundar Pichai of Google — will appear together before Congress for the first time to justify their business practices. Members of the House judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee have investigated the internet giants for more than a year on accusations that they have stifled rivals and harmed consumers. The exact contents of the documents they’ve collected are unknown, although they are said to include documents related to some of the companies’ acquisitions and internal communications among top executives.

It is set to be a bizarre spectacle, with four men who run companies worth nearly $5 trillion combined — and who include two of the world’s richest individuals — primed to argue that their businesses are not really that powerful after all.

And it will be a first in another way: Mr. Zuckerberg, Mr. Pichai, Mr. Bezos and Mr. Cook will all be testifying via videoconference, rather than rising side-by-side for a swearing-in at a witness table in Washington.

At the hearing, the 15 members of the antitrust subcommittee will have five minutes for each question. Representative David Cicilline, Democrat of Rhode Island and the chairman of the subcommittee, will control the number of rounds of questioning, potentially stretching the hearing into the evening.

The antitrust issues facing Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon are complex and vastly different.

Amazon is accused of abusing its role as both a retailer and a platform hosting third-party sellers on its marketplace. Apple has been accused of unfairly using its clout over its App Store to block rivals and to force apps to pay high commissions. Rivals have said Facebook has a monopoly in social networking. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, is dealing with multiple antitrust allegations because of Google’s dominance in online advertising, search and smartphone software.

Democrats may also veer off the topic of antitrust and bring up concerns about misinformation on social media. Some Republicans are expected to sidetrack discussion with their concerns of liberal bias at the Silicon Valley companies and accusations that conservative voices are censored.

Credit…Douglas Graham/Congressional Quarterly, via Getty Images

The tech industry is an engine of innovation, job creation and American economic prowess. Competition is flourishing, and just a click away. Sure, we do well, but consumers are the big winners.

That was the gist of Bill Gates’s testimony before a Senate panel more than two decades ago. And it’s a safe bet the same themes will feature prominently when the leaders of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google testify on Wednesday.

There are differences, but this week’s appearance by tech executives is reminiscent of the congressional grilling Microsoft’s chief faced 22 years ago.

In 1998, the spotlight was squarely on Mr. Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, the tech behemoth of the personal computer era. This time, the leaders of four big technology companies will be in the dock, appearing remotely because of a pandemic.

Today, more issues are in play. In the late 1990s, the concern was that Microsoft would use its dominance in the PC market to stifle internet upstarts. The sheer market muscle of today’s tech giants is a worry, but so is the role they play broadly in commerce and communication, influencing public opinion and politics.

When Mr. Gates testified, a formal investigation of Microsoft by federal regulators and dozens of states was well underway. The same is true now for Google and Facebook, while Amazon and Apple are also facing antitrust scrutiny.

There can be gotcha moments. Under pointed questioning, Mr. Gates rhetorically bobbed and weaved, refusing to use the M-word: monopoly.

But when Jim Barksdale, head of Netscape, the internet company most in Microsoft’s sights, testified that day, he asked the spectators to raise their hands if they used a PC.

About three-quarters of the room did. Then, how many of them used Microsoft’s Windows operating system? Almost the same number of hands flew up again.

“That,” Mr. Barksdale said, “is a monopoly.”

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