The CEOs of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google can breathe easy this weekend. The antitrust hearing set for Monday, where they were expected to be grilled about anticompetitive practices, has been delayed. A new date hasn't been announced.
The hearing was bumped so policymakers can attend memorial services for the late Representative John Lewis, which are set to take place on the same day.
The executives were going to testify virtually regarding a long-running, bipartisan investigation into what critics believe is anticompetitive behavior. Companies including Yelp, Spotify, Sonos, Tile, and many others have said that the tech giants use their immense cash balances and control over major platforms to copy rivals and favor their own services, setting up barriers that kill innovation by discouraging upstarts from even trying.
The platform advantage – Apple skirted such criticism for the longest time but has been under fire of late over the fees it imposes on third-party developers in its App Store. Apple charges developers a 30 percent commission for in-app purchases and subscriptions (or 15 percent after the first year) even though the company's own apps, like its Apple Music subscription service, don't have to pay a similar fee. By installing and setting Apple Music app as the default on all iPhones and Macs, Spotify says that Apple is further stacking the cards in its own favor. The app is growing faster than Spotify even though it's widely considered inferior.
Developers also complain its rules are at times arbitrary or capricious, with the company regularly changing rules or enforcing ones it's previously chosen not to.
Apple missed the point – In anticipation of the hearing, Apple released an "independent study" concluding that its commissions are fair and comparable to what other marketplaces charge. The problem that politicians and developers have, however, is that independent developers don't have any real say and are at the mercy of Apple's whims. It can change what it charges or remove any app and potentially take away someone's livelihood at the snap of a finger. With the only other legitimate app store with any scale being Google Play, but with Android users being less predisposed to paying for apps, there's really nowhere to turn. Apple argues its fees and rules are necessary to maintain a store free of shady or malicious apps.
Regulators are also evaluating how Amazon, Google, and Facebook have used data from their platforms to monitor and squash competitors rising in popularity. Google has long been attacked for promoting its own local services in search over those of Yelp and others, and it was recently reported that the company was harvesting data from Android phones to compare the performance of third-party apps to its own alternatives. It's also been discovered that Amazon accessed third-party sellers' data to help the company create its own private line of products.
Ongoing investigations by the Department of Justice and the FTC could lead to enforcement actions against some of the companies. The hearings in Congress will culminate in a report that could lead to new antitrust legislation. Or better yet, to breaking up the big tech firms. We won't be holding our breath, though. As demonstrated the last time Zuckerberg was called to testify, those with the power to actually do something often lack a comprehensive understanding of the tech being discussed, let alone what needs to be done to make it more equitable and less of a threat to consumers and entrepreneurs alike.