© Provided by the Associated Press
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies via video conference before a lower house antitrust judicial subcommittee, Washington, July 29, 2020. (Graeme Jennings / Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) – US lawmakers finally had a chance to question top executives of the four big tech companies, but they were beaten lightly. However, in almost five hours of interrogation, the surprising revelations and scandalous confrontations were conspicuous by their absence. Despite hostile questions and frequent interruptions from lawmakers from both parties, few blows seemed to take their toll.

It was not clear to what extent they advanced in their objective of beating these gigantic companies about their dominance of the sector and the allegations of monopolistic practices that stifle competition.

Diatribes abounded Wednesday at a lower house antitrust judicial subcommittee hearing with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg; Jeff Bezos of Amazon; Sundar Pichai of Google and Tim Cook of Apple. For a year, the panel has investigated the business practices of the Silicon Valley giants to determine whether they need to be regulated or even divided.

CEOs testified by video to lawmakers that they sometimes appeared together as small individual figures on a screen divided into mostly empty squares. Most of the congressmen were sitting, wearing face masks, in the courtroom in Washington.

Executives abounded with data intended to demonstrate the strong competition they face and the value of their innovation and essential services to consumers, but were sometimes hesitant in answering sharp questions about their business practices. They were also asked about their alleged political trends, how they affect American democracy, and their role in China.

The panel’s chairman, Democrat David Cicilline, said that each platform controlled by Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple « is a bottleneck in a crucial distribution channel. »

« Whether they control access to information or a market, these platforms have the incentive and the ability to exploit this power, » he said. « They can charge exorbitant fees, impose stifling contracts, and extract valuable data from the people and businesses that depend on them … Simply put, they have too much power. »

The four CEOs run companies whose products are part of the fabric of everyday life, with billions of customers and a combined market value that exceeds the entire German economy. Bezos is the richest individual in the world; Zuckerberg is fourth on the list of billionaires.

The interrogated went through some difficulties. Pichai and Zuckerberg looked awkward when questioned about apparently murky aspects of their business, but they had a break when their inquisitors ran out of time. Bezos acknowledged that Amazon’s alleged misdeeds – for example, allegations that the company has used data generated by independent sellers on its platform to compete against them – would be « unacceptable » if proven.

Regulatory authorities in the United States and Europe have scrutinized Amazon’s relationship with companies that make sales on its website and whether the online commerce giant has used information from sellers to create its own-brand products.

« We have a policy of not using vendor-specific information to help our private label business, » Bezos said in response to a question from Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal. « However, I cannot guarantee that this policy was not violated. »

External observers were able to draw diametrically opposite conclusions from the event. Lawyer Richard Hamilton Jr., a former Justice Department antitrust official, said everyone on the commission seemed to agree on the need to regulate companies more tightly, which was an « ominous » sign, but Stephen Beck, CEO of the Business consultant CG42, said that the technology companies and their brands came out relatively unscathed.

Cook, he added, was particularly skilled and well prepared and gave a « master class on how to handle these situations. » He received fewer questions than his colleagues after claiming that Apple is not dominant in any market.

While Democrats focused primarily on market competition, several Republicans voiced long-standing complaints that tech companies are censoring conservative voices, and questioned their business activities in China. « The big tech companies go for the conservatives, » said Rep. Jim Jordan.

In a tweet before the hearing, President Donald Trump challenged Congress to take action against the companies, which he has accused, without presenting evidence, of being biased against him and conservatives in general.