July 29, 2020 / 11:48 PM / 7 days ago

At big tech hearing, non-denials speak louder than words

(Reuters) - At Wednesday’s hotly anticipated congressional hearing on Big Tech CEOs, much of what they said was predictable: We’re not that big; competition is fierce; consumers love us.

What they didn’t say might be more interesting. Given the opportunity to dispute that they used their enormous power to outmaneuver smaller challengers, the tech titans repeatedly demurred.

“All of them indicated that they use their massive data advantages to peek into what their competitors or people who rely on their platforms are doing,” said Gene Kimmelman, an adviser with the Washington-based nonprofit Public Knowledge. “So while they didn’t really want to admit it, they couldn’t deny it.”

One of the first to be quizzed was Google (GOOGL.O) Chief Executive Sundar Pichai, who was asked by Democratic Congressman David Cicilline whether the search giant used its surveillance of web traffic to see what its competition was up to.

Pichai came out with a vague statement that didn’t sound like he disputed the question.

“We try to understand trends from data we can see,” he said.

Quizzed by Washington Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, Amazon (AMZN.O) founder Jeff Bezos said that Amazon had a policy against using the data harvested from its sellers to boost its own business “but I can’t guarantee that that policy has never been violated.”

Bezos said he’d read reports of that happening at his company but that he was “not yet satisfied that we’ve gotten to the bottom of it.”

“I’ll take that as a you’re-not-denying that,” Jayapal said.

When Jayapal turned her attention to Facebook (FB.O), she pushed founder Mark Zuckerberg on whether the company had ever copied its competitors.

“We’ve certainly adapted features that others have led in,” he said.

Even when there were denials - or something like them - they weren’t particularly forceful. When Georgia Congresswoman Lucy McBath quizzed Apple (AAPL.O) Chief Executive Tim Cook on whether his company had blocked Random House’s e-book app from its online marketplace after the publisher declined to participate in Apple’s competing iBookstore, Cook said there were any number of reasons why an app might have be frozen out.

“It may not work properly,” Cook told her. “There may be other issues with it.”

FILE PHOTO: Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks via video conference before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law on "Online Platforms and Market Power" in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on July 29, 2020. Graeme Jennings/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

When McBath responded to Cook, she could easily have been addressing his colleagues.

“Our evidence suggests that your company has used its power to harm your rivals and boost your own business,” she said.

“This is fundamentally unfair.”

Reporting by Raphael Satter; Editing by Aurora Ellis

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