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House Subcommittee Says Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google Abused Monopoly Power

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  • The House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, commercial and administrative law released a major report on four companies: Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google, saying that they all engaged in anti-competitive monopoly tactics
  • Either via acquiring their competition, using self-preferencing tactics, or taking advantage of their massive stockpiles of consumer data, the report says that these companies have established and maintained dominance and have exploited their power to minimize competition. 
  • The subcommittee has suggested sweeping antitrust reform in response to this, an action that is supported by Democrats but opposed by Republicans. 
  • The companies have responded to this report, defending themselves and their practices. 

Findings in Subcommittee Report

The House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, commercial and administrative law released a lengthy report on Tuesday accusing Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google of engaging in anti-competitive tactics to enjoy monopoly power in their respective arenas. 

The report was the result of a 16-month investigation into those companies and is around 450 pages long. The subcommittee has a Democratic majority and has suggested sweeping reform to antitrust laws as a result of their findings. 

During the investigation, the CEOs of each company gave testimonies about their business practices and the evidence suggesting that they have exploited their power in digital markets in abusive ways. The report says their answers were “often evasive and non-responsive, raising fresh questions about whether they believe they are beyond the reach of democratic oversight.”

While the report notes that each company is different, it concludes that their business practices all have the same issues and that each acts as a gatekeeper in key channels of distribution.

“By controlling access to markets, these giants can pick winners and losers throughout our economy,” the report says. “They not only wield tremendous power, but they also abuse it by charging exorbitant fees, imposing oppressive contract terms, and extracting valuable data from the people and businesses that rely on them.”

It also claims that these companies use their gatekeeper status to maintain their power by surveilling potential rivals so they can either buy them out, copy them, or cut out their competitive threats by other means. 

“Whether through self-preferencing, predatory pricing, or exclusionary conduct, the dominant platforms have exploited their power in order to become even more dominant,” the subcommittee wrote. 

“To put it simply, companies that once were scrappy, underdog startups that challenged the status quo have become the kinds of monopolies we last saw in the era of oil barons and railroad tycoons,” the report adds. “Although these firms have delivered clear benefits to society, the dominance of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google has come at a price.”

Amazon and Facebook Acquisitions

The report says that Amazon got to the top by acquiring competitors, and now, the company’s control reaches across business lines “in ways that undermine free and fair competition.”

“As a result of Amazon’s dominance, other businesses are frequently beholden to Amazon for their success,” the report says. 

Much of the subcommittee’s findings with Amazon pertain to its relationship with its third-party sellers. There are 2.3 million active third-party sellers on the platform, 37% of which rely on Amazon for their sole source of income. While Amazon publicly calls their third party sellers “partners,” documents studied in the report reveal that behind closed doors they are referred to as “internal competitors.” The report says this creates an inherent conflict of interest in the company, which then incentives Amazon to exploit its access to competing seller’s data and information. 

The report also claims that Amazon’s ability to acquire so much of its competition has not only led to fewer consumer choices but has also reinforced its stockpile of consumer data. 

“Amazon is first and foremost a data company, they just happen to use it to sell stuff,” a former employee told the subcommittee. 

The report accused Facebook of similar acquisition and data exploitation tactics. 

“The company used its data advantage to create superior market intelligence to identify nascent competitive threats and then acquire, copy, or kill these firms,” the report says.

“In the absence of competition, Facebook’s quality has deteriorated over time, resulting in worse privacy protections for its users and a dramatic rise in misinformation on its platform.”

One of Facebook’s largest and most prominent acquisitions occurred back in 2012 when the social media giant absorbed Instagram. Instagram is now so massive that Facebook’s biggest competition is, in many ways, itself. A former Instagram employee said that the head of the app wanted Instagram to grow as widely as possible, which was discouraged by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who did not want the photo-sharing app to compete with his social networking platform.

“It was collusion, but within an internal monopoly,” the employee said. “If you own two social media utilities, they should not be allowed to shore each other up. It’s unclear to me why this should not be illegal. You can collude by acquiring a company.”

Self-Preferencing at Apple and Google 

When it came to Apple, much of the subcommittee’s findings had to do with the App Store. The report said that while the company’s ecosystem has “significant benefits” for both app developers and customers, the company still functions on an extreme and controlling bias. This control creates barriers for competition and allows Apple to discriminate against rivals so it can promote its own apps.

“Apple also uses its power to exploit app developers through misappropriation of competitively sensitive information and to charge app developers supra-competitive prices within the App Store,” the subcommittee said. 

When it comes to Google, the report says that small businesses, entrepreneurs and major corporations alike depend on the web giant for traffic and have no alternate search engine to adequately serve as a substitute. The report accuses Google of conducting an “an aggressive campaign to undermine vertical search providers, which Google viewed as a significant threat.”

“Google appears to be siphoning off traffic from the rest of the web, while entities seeking to reach users must pay Google steadily increasing sums for ads. Numerous market participants analogized Google to a gatekeeper that is extorting users for access to its critical distribution channel, even as its search page shows users less relevant results,” the report says. 

The report also says that Google uses anti-competitive contracts. For example after buying the Android operating system, Google used contractual restrictions so that Google’s monopoly could extend beyond desktop to mobile. Those contracts required Google apps to be pre-installed or given default status. 

Congressional Suggestions

As a result of these findings, the subcommittee said that there is a “pressing need for legislative action and reform.” The report then laid out extensive and detailed suggestions, which would lead to some of the most sweeping antitrust laws against these tech giants. Those reforms include addressing anti-competitive conduct in digital markets, strengthening merger and monopolization enforcement, and improving the sound administration of the antitrust laws.

The report listed out dozens of potential policies to that could be in this kind of legislation, including enacting nondiscrimination requirements that would prevent these companies from favoring their products and boosting them ahead of rivals; a presumptive prohibition against future mergers and acquisitions by the dominant platforms; reasserting the anti-monopoly goals of the antitrust laws and their centrality to ensuring a healthy and vibrant democracy; and restoring congressional oversight of antitrust laws and bringing federal antitrust agencies to their full strength.

These recommendations come from House Democrats and are not fully supported by Republicans. While many on the right oppose much of what the Democrats have put on the table when it comes to this, some see it as a starting point for negotiations.

Company Responses

The tech companies, for their part, are all on the defense when it comes to the report’s findings and suggestions. All four are advocating against any legislation that would limit their practices and maintaining that none of their behavior has been anti-competitive. Now, as far as what these companies are saying, well they all seem to be on the defense. 

“All large organizations attract the attention of regulators, and we welcome that scrutiny. But large companies are not dominant by definition, and the presumption that success can only be the result of anti-competitive behavior is simply wrong,” Amazon said in a blog post. 

Facebook told CNBC that the company is an American success story with plenty of competition. 

“Acquisitions are part of every industry, and just one way we innovate new technologies to deliver more value to people. Instagram and WhatsApp have reached new heights of success because Facebook has invested billions in those businesses,” the company added. 

Apple released a statement with similar messaging to that of Amazon and Facebook.

“We have always said that scrutiny is reasonable and appropriate but we vehemently disagree with the conclusions reached in this staff report with respect to Apple,” the company said.

“We’ve built the App Store to be a safe and trusted place for users to discover and download apps and a supportive way for developers to create and sell apps globally.”

Google also put out a blog post addressing the report, saying that the suggestions laid in it are not best for the American people. 

“Americans simply don’t want Congress to break Google’s products or harm the free services they use  every day,” Google wrote. “The goal of antitrust law is to protect consumers, not help commercial rivals.”

See what others are saying: (CNBC) (New York Times) (Washington Post)

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FDA Recalls 11,000 Ice Cream Containers and Sportsmix Pet Food Products

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  • Over 11,000 cartons of Weis Markets ice cream were recalled after a customer discovered an “intact piece of metal equipment” inside a 48-ounce container of the brand’s Cookies and Cream flavor. 
  • The FDA also expanded a recall of Sportsmix pet food over concerns that the products may contain potentially fatal levels of aflatoxins.
  • So far, more than 70 dogs have died and more than 80 pets have become sick after eating Sportsmix food. The agency recommends taking your pet to a veterinarian if they have eaten the recalled products, even if they aren’t showing symptoms.

Metal Pieces in Weis Ice Cream Cause Massive Recall

The Food and Drug Administration announced two major product recalls this week following serious consumer complaints.

The first came Sunday when the agency revealed that over 11,000 cartons of Weis Market ice cream were recalled. “The products may be contaminated with extraneous material, specifically metal filling equipment parts,” the FDA’s statement explained.

At least one customer discovered an “intact piece of metal equipment” inside a 48-ounce container of the brand’s Cookies and Cream flavor.

Those containers were available in 197 Weis Market grocery stores, but they have already been pulled from shelves. The products have a sell-by date of October 21, 2020, and customers who purchased the product can return it for a full refund.

Along with removing 10,869 units of the Cookies and Cream containers, the brand also recalled 502 3-gallon bulk containers of Klein’s Vanilla Dairy Ice Cream.

Those bulk containers were not for retail sale, but were instead sold to one retail establishment in New York and have since been removed.

Sportsmix Recall Follows 70 Pet Deaths, 80 Illnesses

The second major recall came Tuesday when the FDA expanded a recall of Sportmix dog food.

According to the agency, the product may contain potentially fatal levels of aflatoxins – toxins produced by the Aspergillus flavus mold, which can grow on corn and other grains used as ingredients in pet food.

As of Tuesday, more than 70 pets have died and more than 80 have gotten sick after eating Sportsmix pet food. Not all the cases have been officially confirmed as aflatoxin poisoning at this time. This count also may not reflect the total number of pets affected.

For now, the FDA is asking pet owners and veterinary professionals to stop using the impacted Sportsmix products that have an expiration date on or before July 9, 2022, and have “05” in the date or lot code.

More detailed information about the recalled products can be found on the FDA’s announcement page.

Pets experiencing aflatoxin poisoning may have symptoms like sluggishness, loss of appetite, vomiting, jaundice, and/or diarrhea. In some cases, this toxicity can cause long-term liver issues without showing any symptoms. Because of this, pet owners are being advised to take their animals to a veterinarian if they have eaten the recalled products, even if they aren’t showing symptoms.

There is currently no evidence that pet owners who have handled the affected food are at risk of aflatoxin poisoning. Still, the FDA recommends that wash your hands after handling pet food.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (USA TODAY) (PEOPLE)

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Signal and Telegram Downloads Surge After WhatsApp Announces It Will Share Data With Facebook

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  • Downloads for Signal and Telegram have skyrocketed in the last week, with the encrypted messaging apps boasting 7.5 million and 9 million new followers, respectively.
  • The growth comes after WhatsApp said it will require almost all users to share personal data with its parent company Facebook.
  • It also comes after Parler’s shutdown and bans against President Trump from Twitter and Facebook, which prompted his supporters to turn specifically to Telegram.

Telegram and Signal See Big Boost

Downloads for the encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram have surged in the last week after WhatsApp announced that it will start forcing all users outside the E.U. and U.K. to share personal data with Facebook.

Last week, WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, told users that they must allow Facebook and its subsidiaries to collect their phone numbers, locations, and the phone numbers of their contacts, among other things.

Anyone who does not agree to the new terms by Feb. 8 will lose access to the messaging app. The move prompted many to call for people to delete WhatsApp and start using other services like Signal or Telegram.

Now, it appears those calls to use other encrypted messaging apps have been heard. According to data from app analytics firm Sensor Tower, Signal saw 7.5 million installs globally through the App Store and Google Play from Jan. 6 to Jan. 10 alone, marking a 4,200% increase from the previous week.

Meanwhile, Telegram saw even more downloads. During the same time, it gained 9 million users, up 91% from the previous week. It was also the most downloaded app in the U.S.

WhatsApp responded to the exodus by attempting to clarify its new policy in a statement Monday.

“We want to be clear that the policy update does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way,” the company said. “Instead, this update includes changes related to messaging a business on WhatsApp, which is optional, and provides further transparency about how we collect and use data.”

Other Causes of App Growth

Notably, some of the spikes in the Telegram downloads, specifically, also come from many supporters of President Donald Trump flocking to alternative platforms after Parler was shut down and Trump was banned from Twitter and Facebook.

Far-right chat room membership on the platform has increased significantly in recent days, NBC News reported. Conversations in pre-existing chatrooms where white supremacist content has already been shared for months has also increased since the pro-Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last week.

According to the outlet, many of the president’s supporters have moved their operations to the app in large part because it has very lax community guidelines. Companies like Facebook and Twitter have recently cracked down on groups and users sharing incendiary content, known conspiracy theories, and attempting to organize events that could lead to violence.

There have been several documented instances of Trump supporters now using Telegram channels to discuss planned events and urge acts of direct violence. Per NBC, in one channel named “fascist,” users have called on others to “shoot politicians” and “encourage armed struggle.” A post explaining how to radicalize Trump supporters to become neo-Nazis also made rounds on the “fascist” channel, among others. 

Membership one channel frequently used by members of the Proud Boys has grown by more than 10,000 in recent days, seeming to directly attract users from Parler.

“Now that they forced us off the main platforms it doesn’t mean we go away, it just means we are going to go to places they don’t see,” a user posted in the chatroom, according to NBC.

See what others are saying: (NBC News) (Business Insider) (CNBC)

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Pornhub Removes All Unverified User Uploads, Taking Down Most of Its Videos

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  • Pornhub is now removing all videos that were not uploaded by verified users.
  • Before the massive purge, the site hosted around 13.5 million videos. As of Monday morning, there were only 2.9 million videos left. 
  • The move is part of a series of sweeping changes the company made days after The New York Times published a shocking op-ed detailing numerous instances of abuse on the site, including nonconsensual uploads of underage girls.
  • Following the article, numerous businesses cut ties with the company, including Mastercard and Visa, which both announced Thursday that they will not process any payments on the site.

Pornhub Purges Videos

Pornhub removed the vast majority of its existing videos Monday, just hours after the company announced that it would take down all existing videos uploaded by non-verified users.

According to reports, before the new move was announced Sunday night, Pornhub hosted about 13.5 million videos, according to the number displayed on the site’s search bar. As of writing, that search bar shows just over 2.9 million videos. 

The decision comes less than a week after the company announced it would only allow video uploads from content partners and members of its Model program.

At the time, Pornhub claimed it made the decision following an independent review launched in April to eliminate illegal content. However, many speculated that it was actually in large part due to an op-ed published in The New York Times just days before. That piece, among other things, found that the site had been hosting videos of young girls uploaded without their consent, including some content where minors were raped or assaulted.

The article prompted a wave of backlash against Pornhub and calls for other businesses to cut ties with the company. On Thursday, both Visa and Mastercard announced that they would stop processing all payments on the site.

“Our investigation over the past several days has confirmed violations of our standards prohibiting unlawful content on their site,” Mastercard said in a statement.

Less than an hour later, Visa tweeted that it would also be suspending payments while it completed its own investigation.

Pornhub Claims It’s Being Targeted

However, in its blogpost announcing the most recent decision, Pornhub claimed that it was being unfairly targeted.

Specifically, the company noted that Facebook’s own transparency report found 84 million instances of child sexual abuse content over the last three years. By contrast, a report by the third-party Internet Watch Foundation found 118 similar instances on Pornhub in the same time period.

Notably, the author of The Times report, Nicholas Krisof, specifically said the Internet Watch Foundation’s findings represented a massive undercount, and that he was able to find hundreds of these kinds of videos on Pornhub in just half an hour.

Still, the site used the disputed numbers to point a finger at others.

“It is clear that Pornhub is being targeted not because of our policies and how we compare to our peers, but because we are an adult content platform,” the statement continued.

“Every piece of Pornhub content is from verified uploaders, a requirement that platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat and Twitter have yet to institute,” the company added. 

However, Pornhub’s implication that it is somehow more responsible because it only let verified users post content is a highly impractical comparison. First of all, Pornhub is a platform created exclusively for porn, content the social media companies the company name-checked explicitly prohibit.

Second of all, and the vast majority of people who use those platforms are not verified, and it would be impossible for a company like Facebook or YouTube to limit content to only verified users without entirely undermining their own purposes.

Verification Concerns

Even beyond that, there are also still questions about Pornhub’s verification process. According to their site, all someone needs to do to become verified is to simply have a Pornhub account with an avatar and then upload a selfie of themselves holding a piece of paper with their username and Pornhub.com written on it.

While the company did tell reporters the process would be made more thorough sometime next year, they did not provide any specific details, prompting questions about exhaustive the verification process will ultimately be.

That question is highly important because, at least per its current policies, the verification process makes it so users are eligible to monetize their videos as part of the ModelHub program.

If the new verification process is still weak or has loopholes, people could easily slip through the cracks and continue to profit. However, on the other side, there are also big concerns among sex-workers that if the process is too limited, they will be able to make money on the platform.

That concern has already been exacerbated by some of the other actions taken since The Times article was published. For example, after Mastercard and Visa made their announcements, numerous sex workers and activists condemned the decision, saying it would seriously hurt how porn performers collect income —  not just on Pornbub, but on other platforms as well. 

“By targeting Pornhub and successfully destroying the ability for independent creators to monetize their content, they have made it easier to remove payment options from smaller platforms too,” model Avalon Fey told Motherboard last week. “This has nothing to do with helping abused victims, and everything to do with hurting online adult entertainers to stop them from creating and sharing adult content.”  

Other performers also expressed similar concerns that the move could spillover to smaller platforms. 

“I am watching to see if my OnlyFans will be their next target and sincerely hoping not,” amateur performer Dylan Thomas also told the outlet.

“Sex workers are scared by this change, despite not having uploaded any illegal content,” Fey continued, “because we have seen these patterns before and have had sites and payment processors permanently and unexpectedly shut down.”

See what others are saying: (Motherboard) (The Verge) (Bloomberg)

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