US Lawmakers Pummel Big Tech CEOs At Antitrust Hearing

A photo combination of top tech CEOs who appeared before the US Congress on July 29, 2020.
A photo combination of top tech CEOs who appeared before the US Congress on July 29, 2020.

 

Big Tech executives faced an onslaught of criticism from US lawmakers Wednesday at a high-stakes antitrust hearing which could lay the groundwork for tougher regulation of the major internet platforms.

CEOs Tim Cook of Apple, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sundar Pichai of Google were grilled for more than five hours in the unprecedented joint appearance — by video — before a House of Representatives panel investigating market dominance.

While the hearing was called to focus on whether the companies abuse their dominant positions in the market, it veered quickly into topics including political bias, privacy, dealings with China and how platforms deal with misinformation.

“Simply put, they have too much power,” said Representative David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island who chairs the panel conducting a year-long investigation into the business practices of the four companies.

Cicilline said the hearing made clear that the firms “have monopoly power — some need to be broken up, all need to be properly regulated and held accountable.”

Congress has no formal role in antitrust enforcement, but several lawmakers appeared intent on revising US laws to deal with the extraordinary market power and dominance of large technology firms.

“The anti-trust storm clouds appear to be building in the Beltway against Big Tech,” Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said in a note to investors.

“With today’s hearings setting the stage for a battle royale over the next 6 to 9 months.”

Pandemic strength

Cicilline said the coronavirus outbreak has strengthened the clout of the four, saying: “They are likely to emerge (from the pandemic) stronger and more powerful than ever before.”

Some lawmakers sought to play down the competitive danger of the companies, which have won praise for innovating and introducing new technologies and offering lifelines during virus lockdowns.

“Being big is not inherently bad,” said Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin. “Quite the opposite, in America you should be rewarded for success.”

Abusing platforms?

Lawmakers also put spotlights on problems with tech companies operating platforms relied upon by rivals.

Pichai was pressed regarding whether Google’s ad platform tactics hurt other internet players such as news outlets.

In this file photo taken on October 4, 2017 Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., speaks about Google’s improvements in Artificial Intelligence and machine learning at a product launch event. Elijah Nouvelage / AFP

 

Apple’s Cook faced tough questioning over the market power of the company’s App Store and its treatment of developers.

“We treat all app developers the same,” Cook said. “We do not retaliate or bully people.”

Bezos, in his first appearance before a congressional committee, defended Amazon’s dealings with third-party sellers after a blistering attack from Cicilline.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos testifies via video conference during the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law hearing on Online Platforms and Market Power in the Rayburn House office Building, July 29, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Graeme Jennings-Pool/Getty Images/AFP
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos testifies via video conference during the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law hearing on Online Platforms and Market Power in the Rayburn House office Building, July 29, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Graeme Jennings-Pool/Getty Images/AFP

 

“We’ve heard from third party sellers again and again during the course of our investigation that Amazon is the only game in town,” the committee chair said to the company founder.

Bezos disputed the characterization while adding, “There are a lot of options for small firms..  I think we are the best one.”

Playing politics

President Donald Trump, who has accused Facebook and Twitter of censoring his remarks and being biased against conservatives, weighed in with a tweet shortly before the hearing.

“If Congress doesn’t bring fairness to Big Tech, which they should have done years ago, I will do it myself with Executive Orders,” Trump said.

Representative Jim Jordan, a Republican from Ohio, said during the hearing: “I’ll just cut to the chase — Big Tech is out to get conservatives. That’s not a suspicion. That’s not a hunch. That’s a fact.”

Democrat Jamie Raskin of Maryland rejected the argument, saying Facebook and other platforms have failed to contain misinformation from Trump and his supporters, including unverified COVID-19 claims.

“If Facebook is out there trying to repress conservative speech they’re doing a terrible job,” Raskin said. “I don’t understand this endless whining” from Republicans.

Moving forward

Some analysts said the hearing could set the stage for revising US antitrust laws, which at present make it difficult for enforcers to target companies simply for being big.

“There was considerable skepticism toward the tech sector as legislators worry about unfair competition and unfair practices,” said Darrell West, director of the center for technology innovation at the Brookings Institution.

“If Democrats gain control in the (November elections), this hearing will serve as a blueprint for enhanced regulatory oversight,” West said.

Michael Carrier, a Rutgers University professor of antitrust law, said that while “the hearing showed that the representatives did their homework” he didn’t think the hearing would lead to quick action.

Avery Gardiner, a former government antitrust lawyer who follows competition for the Center for Democracy & Technology, said the hearing failed to demonstrate specific anticompetitive actions, leaving the matter now to regulatory agencies.

Google Co-Founders Step Down, Hand Over To Sundar Pichai

This combination of file pictures created on December 3, 2019 shows (L-R) Google CEO Larry Page on May 21, 2012; Google CEO Sundar Pichai on May 7, 2019, at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California.
This combination of file pictures created on December 3, 2019 shows (L-R) Google CEO Larry Page on May 21, 2012; Google CEO Sundar Pichai on May 7, 2019, at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California. Josh Edelson, Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP

 

Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are stepping down from their roles at the helm of parent firm Alphabet and handing the reins to current Google CEO Sundar Pichai, the company said Tuesday.

Pichai will take over from Page as CEO of the holding firm, a Silicon Valley titan that includes Google as well as units focused on “other bets” in areas including self-driving cars and life sciences.

Page and Brin, who is currently Alphabet president, “will continue their involvement as co-founders, shareholders and members of Alphabet’s board of directors,” the company said.

In a letter to employees, the two wrote: “We’ve never been ones to hold on to management roles when we think there’s a better way to run the company.”

They added that 46-year-old Pichai “brings humility and a deep passion for technology to our users, partners and our employees every day” and that there is “no better person to lead Google and Alphabet into the future.”

Alphabet was formed in 2015, giving separate identities to Google and newer projects such as autonomous car unit Waymo and smart cities group Sidewalk Labs.

Pichai, born in India, takes the helm at a time when Page and Brin, both 46, have been noticeably absent, and the company faces a torrent of controversies relating to its dominant position in the tech world.

“Google is the vast, vast majority of Alphabet in terms of revenues, profit and everything else, so why not put the guy doing a great job running all of that in charge of (the) whole company?” said Bob O’Donnell, chief analyst at Technalysis Research.

Investigations and controversies

Pichai is likely to fill a void at the company as it faces antitrust investigations and controversies over privacy and data practices in the United States and elsewhere.

The company has also faced allegations of failing to adequately address sexual harassment in the workplace and of straying from the ideals espoused by the founders in the company’s early code of conduct, which included the motto “don’t be evil.”

“He’s a technologist, but he’s been a steady hand for the last few years and has proven his ability to conduct business at the highest level,” said Roger Kay, an analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates.

Kay added the move “ratifies that the (Google) founders have stepped aside almost entirely.”

Pichai will have a new role as he faces up to claims from President Donald Trump of “bias” in internet search results, and the latest charge from Amnesty International that Alphabet’s business model leads to human rights violations by enabling surveillance of users.

Earlier this year, Pichai met with Trump and appeared to ease the US president’s concerns that Google was unwilling to help the US military and was boosting China and its military.

Trump tweeted after the March meeting that Pichai was “totally committed” to US security.

Last December, Pichai kept calm while testifying in Congress as he parried US lawmakers over complaints of political bias and intrusive data collection.

“We build our products in a neutral way,” Pichai said in one exchange with a lawmaker, and added later: “We approach our work without any political bias.”

Chennai to Silicon Valley

Born to humble beginnings in the southern city of Chennai, Pichai studied engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kharagpur before heading to the United States to further his studies and career.

After leaving India, he attended Stanford University and later studied at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

In recent years, Alphabet has become one of the world’s most valuable companies, with a 2018 profit of some $30 billion on revenue of $136.8 billion.

The 2015 reorganization appeared aimed at installing the startup mentality for new ventures, described by Google as “moonshots.”

These ventures, including the life sciences group Verily and the biotech operation Calico, have been losing money.

Kay said the “other bets” have been struggling because even though they have the financial backing from Google’s profits, “they don’t have the do-or-die element” of other startups.

 

AFP

We Have ‘Checks And Balances’ Against Political Bias – Google CEO

Google Won't Use Artificial Intelligence For Weapons
In this file photo taken on October 4, 2017, Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc.,

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai said Monday that the internet giant steers clear of “political bias,” arguing that this is a core principle of its business to maintain the trust of users.

Pichai also said privacy and security are essential parts of Google’s mission, and that the company is committed to working with the US government “to keep our country safe and secure.”

The prepared remarks released Monday, a day ahead of Pichai’s appearance at the House Judiciary Committee, come with Google under fire on several fronts, on issues around political bias, data security and its domination of internet search.

Pichai strongly denied claims by President Donald Trump and his backers earlier this year that Google operates with a political agenda that suppresses conservative voices.

“Users also look to us to provide accurate, trusted information,” he said. “We work hard to ensure the integrity of our products, and we’ve put a number of checks and balances in place to ensure they continue to live up to our standards.”

Pichai said Google strives to offer “platforms for diverse perspectives and opinions” without promoting its own agenda.

“I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way. To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests,” he said.

Pichai said that Google — which earlier Monday speeded up the shutdown of its Google+ social network after a second data security bug was discovered — supports federal privacy legislation, without offering specifics.

“Protecting the privacy and security of our users has long been an essential part of our mission,” he said.

The tech CEO also sought to allay concerns that Google was snubbing American values by its decision this year to drop out of the bidding for a major Pentagon cloud computing project.

“Even as we expand into new markets we never forget our American roots,” he said.

“It’s no coincidence that a company dedicated to the free flow of information was founded right here in the US. As an American company, we cherish the values and freedoms that have allowed us to grow and serve so many users.”

AFP

[PHOTOS] Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, Visits Lagos

The Chief Executive Officer of Google Inc., Sundar Pichai on Thursday visited Lagos State in South-West Nigeria.

Pichai later attended a programme in the nation’s commercial hub where he revealed that his team would be training 10 million Africans in the next five years.

READ ALSO: Google CEO Announces Training For 10 Million Africans

See photos below:

Google CEO Sundar Pichai

Google CEO Announces Training For 10 Million Africans

The Chief Executive Officer of Google Inc., Sundar Pichai says his team would be training 10 million Africans in the next five years.

He revealed this on Thursday at the #GoogleForNigeria program held in Lagos.

READ ALSO[PHOTOS] Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, Visits Lagos

Google CEO, Sunday Pichai dancing on stage with Nigerians. #GoogleForNigeria

A post shared by Channels Television (@channelstelevision) on

Pichai also stressed the need for individuals and businesses to leverage the digital space and subsequently transition into a digital economy.

He said: “Last year we set out to help bridge the digital skills gap in Africa when we pledged to train one million young people in the region and we’ve exceeded this target. Through either in-person or online training, we help people learn to build a web presence, use Search to find jobs, get tips to enhance their CV, use social media, and so on.

“Now we’re expanding this program and committing to prepare another 10 million people for jobs of the future in the next five years. We’ll also be providing mobile developer training to 100,000 Africans to develop world-class apps, with an initial focus on Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa”, he said.

PHOTOS: Celebrities Turn Up In Style At Google For Nigeria Event

Speaking further, the Google boss noted that Africa is expected to have the world’s largest working-age population of 1.1 billion by 2034; yet only 3 to 4 million jobs are created annually.

According to him, this means that there is an urgent need to create opportunities for the millions of people on the continent who are creative, smart and driven to succeed.

“The internet, and technology as a whole, offer great opportunities for creating jobs, growing businesses and boosting economies. But people need the right skills, tools and products to navigate the digital world and to make it work for them, their businesses and their communities”.

A statement released by Google at the end of the event read in part: “Our charitable arm, Google.org, is committing $20 million over the next five years to nonprofits that are working to improve lives across Africa. We’re giving $2.5 million in initial grants to the nonprofit arms of African start-ups Gidi Mobile and Siyavula to provide free access to learning for 400,000 low-income students in South Africa and Nigeria. The grantees will also develop new digital learning materials that will be free for anyone to use.”

“We also want to invite nonprofits from across the continent to share their ideas for how they could impact their community and beyond. So we’re launching a Google.org Impact Challenge in Africa in 2018 to award $5 million in grants. Any eligible non-profit in Africa can apply, and anyone will be able to help select the best ideas by voting online.

“We want to do more to support African entrepreneurs in building successful technology companies and products. Based on our global Launchpad Accelerator program, this initiative will provide more than $3 million in equity-free funding, mentorship, working space and access to expert advisers to more than 60 African start-ups over three years. Intensive three-month programs, held twice per year, will run out of a new Google Launchpad Space in Lagos; the program’s first location outside of the United States.

Making Our Products Work Better In Africa

“For people to take advantage of digital opportunities, acquiring the right skills and tools is only part of the equation. Online products and services – including ours – also need to work better in Africa. Today, we’re sharing news about how we’re making YouTube, Search and Maps more useful and relevant for Nigerian users. Designed from the ground up, YouTube Go lets you discover, save and share videos you love in a way that’s transparent about the size of downloads.

“Designed to be “offline” first, the app improves the experience of watching videos on a slower network and gives control over the amount of data used streaming or saving videos. It’s a full YouTube experience, with fresh and relevant video recommendations tailored to your preferences and the ability to share videos quickly and easily with friends nearby.  In June, Nigeria became the second country where we started actively testing YouTube Go. Later this year, we’ll be expanding this to a beta launch of the app, available to all Nigerian users.

Lagos Now On ‘Street View’ In Google Maps

“In the last few months, we’ve improved our address search experience in Lagos, by adding thousands of new addresses and streets, outlines of more than a million buildings in commercial and residential areas, and more than 100,000 additional Nigerian small businesses on Google Maps. Today we’re launching Lagos on Street View, with 10,000 kilometres of imagery, including the most important historic roads in the city. You can virtually drive along the Carter Bridge to the National Stadium or across the Eko Bridge, down to the Marina; all on your smartphone.

Faster Web Results

“When you’re on a 2G-like connection or using a low storage device, pages can take a long time to load. We previously launched a feature that streamlines search results so they load with fewer data and at high speed.  Today we’re extending that feature to streamline websites you reach from search results, so that they load with 90 percent fewer data and five times faster, even on low storage devices. We’ve also made several updates to Search to bring more useful, relevant answers and information to people in Nigeria:

Knowledge Panels: We’re connecting people with easy access to the answers to things they care about, displaying knowledge cards for everything from local football teams to Nigerian musicians and actors.

Health Cards: Later this year we’ll launch more than 800 knowledge cards detailing common symptoms and treatments for the most prevalent health conditions in Nigeria. We’ve partnered with the University of Ibadan to ensure that answers have been reviewed by Nigerian doctors for local relevance and accuracy. Nigeria is one of the first countries where we’re providing locally tailored health answers on Search.

Posts on Google: Posts makes it possible for musicians, entertainers and other public figures to share updates, images and videos directly on Google, for people to see while they explore on the web. Nigeria is the third country where we’ve made this feature available and some of the country’s popular musicians are already using it.

“The things we’re announcing today are what drive us; building platforms and products that are relevant and useful for billions, not just the few, and helping people to succeed in the digital economy. That’s why we hope to equip more people, in Africa and elsewhere, with digital skills and tools. We’re excited to be part of Africa’s evolving digital story,” the statement added.

The event also brought together personalities from the music, fashion and even travel industries.