Jul 28, 2020 - Technology

Tech defenders, critics line up shots ahead of hearing

An illustration of the Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon logos under a magnifying glass.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Either Big Tech's top companies preside benignly over healthily competitive markets, or they ruthlessly exploit their power to crush upstarts and challengers.

The big picture: Which conclusion you draw will depend upon where you dip into the slew of new studies, polls and policies the firms and their critics are unleashing ahead of Wednesday's historic congressional testimony by the CEOs of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple.

What's happening: The companies have taken steps leading up to Wednesday's House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee hearing to try to prove they're not stifling competition.

Apple last week unveiled a commissioned study concluding the company doesn't operate its App Store differently from other online marketplaces.

  • Apple bars most app developers from bypassing the up-to-30% cut it takes from in-app subscriptions and purchases. The study found that other marketplaces, including the Google Play Store, impose comparable rules, which some developers complain amount to an abuse of power.
  • Apple's pre-hearing maneuvering appears aimed squarely at the chairman of the antitrust panel, Rep. David Cicilline, who has called Apple’s 30% tax “highway robbery, basically.”

Facebook points to a new study on the growing app ecosystem showing people use about 41 apps on their phone each month, arguing that consumers have more choice than ever.

  • "New companies are succeeding with innovative apps that meet needs people might not even know they have,” said Ime Archibong, Facebook’s head of new product experimentation.

Google announced it will no longer charge a commission to sellers on Google Shopping, which it's also opening to third-party payment platforms like PayPal and Shopify.

  • Google could point to the move as a sign it's better at encouraging competition than Amazon and has made strides in addressing competition issues with its e-commerce platform. In 2017, the European Commission fined Google $2.7 billion for abusing its search dominance to send customers to Google Shopping.

Amazon has been quieter, though it did already release a commissioned study touting its benefits to small business back in January.

Big Tech's trade groups and other allies are rolling out their defenses, too.

  • Tech trade group NetChoice released a report “debunking” the antitrust case against Facebook, touting its competition in the digital advertising and social media markets from companies like YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter, Pinterest and TikTok and major digital advertising competitors like Google, Verizon, AT&T and Amazon.
  • The Computer and Communications Industry Association, which advocates on behalf of tech companies on antitrust around the world, released a poll with Morning Consult showing that four in five adults have a favorable impression of the technology industry.
  • The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a pro-tech think tank, released a report Thursday concluding there's ample competition in tech and that tweaking or more stringently enforcing antitrust law would be a poor way to address concerns not dealing with competition.

The other side: Big Tech's critics have also been lining up.

  • A new paper out Friday from the American Economic Liberties Project, which takes funding from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, accuses Amazon of unfair practices ranging from predatory pricing to favoring its own products, and calls for the company to be regulated and broken up.
  • A coalition of unions including the Teamsters and Communications Workers of America on Thursday filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission alleging Amazon is exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to shore up its dominance, pressuring third-party sellers to send their inventory to Amazon instead of selling through other platforms.
  • The National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors wrote Cicilline last week imploring his panel to “delve deeply into Amazon’s monopolistic treatment of its third-party sellers.”

Yes, but: Lawmakers say they don't need outside help.

  • Senior Judiciary committee aides told reporters they're already well prepared, having pored over 1.3 million documents from tech companies and 385 hours of calls, meetings and briefings as part of a year-long antitrust investigation.
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