House Subcommittee Says Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google Abused Monopoly Power
- 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.
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.
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)
TikTok to Require Labels on Manipulated Media, Ban Deepfakes of Children
The social media platform says it wants to embrace the creativity AI can offer while being cautious of the “societal and individual risks” that come with it.
TikTok is rolling out a slew of limitations regarding synthetic deepfake videos, including a ban on deepfake content of children.
In an update on Tuesday, the social media platform said it wants welcome “the creativity that new artificial intelligence and other digital technologies may unlock” while also being careful of the “societal and individual risks” that come with it. To mitigate those risks, TikTok will require users to label manipulated media depicting “realistic scenes.” Users can do so in stickers, captions, or other means that make it clear the video is “synthetic,” “fake,” “not real,” or “altered.”
On top of that, there are new restrictions about who can be the subject of these manipulated videos. TikTok will not allow deepfake media that shows the likeness of a “young person” or any private person, including adults. It is also barring deepfakes that depict adult public figures giving political or commercial endorsements, as well as deepfakes that violate one of the platform’s other rules.
“While we provide more latitude for public figures, we do not want them to be the subject of abuse, or for people to be misled about political or financial issues,” the company’s updated guidelines say.
As TikTok’s policies previously stated, synthetic media that has been edited to mislead audiences about real-world events is also not allowed on the platform.
As far as what kind of deepfake media is allowed on TikTok, the company said videos showing adult public figures in “certain contexts, including artistic and educational content,” get the green light. This can include a video of a celebrity doing a TikTok dance, or a historical figure being depicted in a history lesson.
The rules will be enforced starting April 21. Between now and then, TikTok says it will be training its moderators to better implement the guidelines.
See what others are saying: (The Verge) (The Associated Press) (TechCrunch)
Adidas Financial Woes Continue, Company on Track for First Annual Loss in Decades
Adidas has labeled 2023 a “transition year” for the company.
Adidas’ split with musician Kanye West has left the company with financial problems due to surplus Yeezy products, putting the sportswear giant in the position to potentially suffer its first annual loss in over 30 years.
Adidas dropped West last year after he made a series of antisemitic remarks on social media and other broadcasts. His Yeezy line was a staple for Adidas, and the surplus product is due, in part, to the brand’s own decision to continue production during the split.
According to CEO Bjorn Gulden, Adidas continued production of only the items already in the pipeline to prevent thousands of people from losing their jobs. However, that has led to the unfortunate overabundance of Yeezy sneakers and clothes.
On Wednesday, Gulden said that selling the shoes and donating the proceeds makes more sense than giving them away due to the Yeezy resale market — which has reportedly shot up 30% since October.
“If we sell it, I promise that the people who have been hurt by this will also get something good out of this,” Gulden said in a statement to the press.
However, Gulden also said that West is entitled to a portion of the proceeds of the sale of Yeezys per his royalty agreement.
Adidas announced in February that, following its divergence from West, it is facing potential sales losses totaling around $1.2 billion and profit losses of around $500 million.
If it decides to not sell any more Yeezy products, Adidas is facing a projected annual loss of over $700 million.
Outside of West, Adidas has taken several heavy profit blows recently. Its operating profit reportedly fell by 66% last year, a total of more than $700 million. It also pulled out of Russia after the country’s invasion of Ukraine last year, which cost Adidas nearly $60 million dollars. Additionally, China’s “Zero Covid” lockdowns last year caused in part a 36% drop in revenue for Adidas compared to years prior.
As a step towards a solution, Gulden announced that the company is slashing its dividends from 3.30 euros to 0.70 euro cents per share pending shareholder approval.
Adidas has labeled 2023 a “transition year” for the company.
“Adidas has all the ingredients to be successful. But we need to put our focus back on our core: product, consumers, retail partners, and athletes,” Gulden said. “I am convinced that over time we will make Adidas shine again. But we need some time.”
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (CNN)
Elon Musk Bashes Disabled Ex-Twitter Employee, Gets Blowback
After Musk claimed the former employee “did no actual work,” the staffer calmly directed passive-aggressive insults right back at the billionaire.
Excuse Me, Do I Still Work Here?
Elon Musk brawled online with a former Twitter employee who didn’t know whether he was fired Tuesday, accusing the staffer of exploiting his disability.
Haraldur “Halli” Thorleifsson, who has muscular dystrophy, joined Twitter in 2021 after it acquired the creative agency he founded: Ueno.
He said on Twitter that he was unable to confirm whether he was still a Twitter employee nine days after being locked out of his work computer, despite reaching out to the head of HR and Musk himself through email.
At the time, Twitter had laid off at least 200 workers, or some 10% of its remaining workforce.
In search of an answer, Thorleifsson tweeted at Musk, who responded with the question: “What work have you been doing?”
After being given permission by Musk to break confidentiality, Thorleifsson listed several of his accomplishments, including leading “design crits to help level up design across the company.”
“Level up from what design to what? Pics or it didn’t happen,” Musk replied.
“We haven’t hired design roles in 4 months. What changes did you make to help with the youths?”
Thorleifsson reminded Musk that he couldn’t access any pictures because he was locked out of his work computer.
Musk stopped replying to the tweets, but hours later he returned to the platform to lob invective at his former employee.
Musk Vs. Halli
“The reality is that this guy (who is independently wealthy) did no actual work, claimed as his excuse that he had a disability that prevented him from typing, yet was simultaneously tweeting up a storm,” Musk tweeted, apparently referring to Thorleifsson. “Can’t say I have a lot of respect for that.”
“But was he fired? No, you can’t be fired if you weren’t working in the first place,” he added.
In a later Twitter thread, Thorleifsson said he could type for one or two hours at a time before his hands cramped, but that in pre-Musk Twitter, that wasn’t a problem because he was a senior director.
He added that despite his crippling disability, he worked hard for years to build Ueno.
“We grew fast and made money,” he said. “I think that’s what you are referring to when you say independently wealthy? That I independently made my money, as opposed to say, inherited an emerald mine.”
Thorleifsson made several more passive-aggressive jabs at Musk.
“I joined at a time when the company was growing fast,” he wrote. “You kind of did the opposite. The company had a fair amount of issues, but then again, most bigger companies do. Or even small companies, like Twitter today.”
Thorleifsson said that immediately following his back-and-forth with Musk, Twitter’s head of HR confirmed that he had indeed been fired from the company.