Tim Cook mostly avoids grilling during historic congressional antitrust hearing

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Tim Cook answers questions about App Store business practices.
Things didn't get too hot during Tim Cook's virtual visit to Capitol Hill.
Photo: C-SPAN

Apple CEO Tim Cook mostly avoided questioning during Wednesday’s historic congressional antitrust hearing on the business practices of Big Tech.

Cook took only a handful of questions from the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee. Lawmakers directed most of their questioning — which capped a year-long investigation into antitrust issues — at Cook’s fellow CEOs from Facebook, Google and Amazon.

Cook gets a pass

The hearing, which was conducted by videoconference, was dominated by questions mostly to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about content on the social platform. Conservative members grilled Zuckerberg on the accusation that Facebook mutes conservative voices, while Democrat members of the committee questioned the CEO about misinformation and political propaganda.

The line of questioning set the pattern for the hours-long hearing. Democrats mostly hit the tech CEOs with accusations of anticompetitive behavior, while Republicans focused on anti-conservative bias on online platforms.

Meanwhile, Cook sat patiently while the congresspeople grandstanded and lobbed questions without giving the CEOs much opportunity to wander. Multiple times, lawmakers cut off execs as they replied to questions.

The New York Times tracked how many questions each CEO was asked. Zuckerberg topped the list with 62, followed by Google’s Sundar Pichai with 61 and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos with 59. By contrast, Cook took only 35 questions, just over half the number of his fellow CEOs.

Bezos weathered questions about fake goods sold on Amazon, predatory data-mining practices and monopolistic sales policies. At one point, the chairman of the antitrust subcommittee, Rep. David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island), said one third-party seller compared Amazon to a drug dealer.

Meanwhile, Pichai got grilled about Google stealing content and monopolizing online search. He even faced questioning about Google’s decision to pull out of a deal with the Pentagon to analyze drone footage.

Apple’s App Store policies

Cook took several questions about App Store policies, including removing apps that compete with Apple’s own and collecting commissions from third-party apps.

Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Georgia), for example, questioned Cook about the removal of parental control apps after Apple introduced iOS 12’s Screen Time monitoring feature. McBath asked whether Apple purposely removed the apps that competed with Cupertino’s own tool.

Cook denied the accusation, and said the apps were removed because they were based on mobile device management platforms that could spy on users’ screens, among other things.

“We were concerned, congresswoman, about the privacy and security of kids,” he said.

Cook also took questions about Apple’s treatment of developers. Rep. Hank Thompson (D-Georgia) said developers were often confused about the App Store review process. He said devs voiced complaints about Apple’s decisions being arbitrary, made-up and unfairly applied.

Again, Cook denied the accusation. In fact, he said that it’s in Apple’s best interest to treat devs fairly. The company wants the best and brightest to write iOS apps, he said, because high-quality software proves essential for a company engaged in a “street fight for market share in the smartphone business.”

None of the questions elicited any kind of gotcha from the Apple CEO, who remained composed and calm throughout. He didn’t know the answer to a couple of queries, and promised to follow up with the lawmakers.

What happens next

The hearing concluded with a statement from Rep. David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island), chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law. Cicilline said the subcommittee will publish a report on the findings of its investigation and will propose legislation. He didn’t detail the timeline.

“This hearing has made one fact clear to me,” he said. “These companies as exist today have monopoly power. Some need to be broken up. All need to be properly regulated and held accountable. We need to ensure the antitrust laws first written more than a century ago work in the digital age.”