Lawmakers accuse tech giants of using privacy as a weapon to hurt competition

Apple and Google have used online privacy and security measures to gain a competitive advantage, Congress members said.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
3 min read

Tech CEOs swear in to testify to Congress.

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In the last few years, online privacy and cybersecurity have become a public concern, with tech giants like Facebook, Google and Apple backing a national law on data privacy regulations. But lawmakers at an antitrust hearing on Wednesday accused the tech companies of being disingenuous with their support for privacy -- arguing that they've used it as an excuse to snub out their competition. 

The CEOs of tech giants Apple , Amazon, Facebook and Google faced a five-hour series of questions from the House Judiciary's subcommittee on antitrust, specifically on whether or not they engaged in anti-competitive behavior

Members of Congress gave several examples of times tech giants took actions that would directly benefit themselves while harming their competitors, like Google announcing it would phase out third-party tracking cookies by 2022 or Apple removing parental control apps shortly after it launched its own "screen time" feature.

Watch this: Congress seeks answers from Amazon on use of internal data to gain competitive advantage

In both of those cases, the companies said the actions were taken to protect the privacy and security of their users, but House members argue that it was specifically to boost their own profits. 

"You're using privacy as a shield, and what you're really doing is using it as a cudgel to beat down competition," said Rep. Kelly Armstrong, a Republican from North Dakota. "It's a great word that people care about, but not when it's utilized to control more of the marketplace and squeeze out smaller competitors." 

The lawmaker was referring to a 2015 decision from Google to stop allowing third parties to buy YouTube ads, forcing them to buy directly from the company itself. At the time, Google said it was for privacy reasons and CEO Sundar Pichai defended the change on Wednesday.

"It's a service we provide to our users, we obviously want to make sure we protect the privacy of our users there," Pichai said. 

Rep. Lucy McBath, a Democrat from Georgia, called out Apple for removing parental control apps that were in direct competition with Screen Time, a feature the tech giant rolled out in 2018.

Apple CEO Tim Cook said it removed the apps out of a security concern, not to gain a competitive advantage.       

"We were concerned, congresswoman, about the privacy and security of kids," Cook said. "The technology that was being used at the time was called MDM, and it had the ability to take over the kid's screen, and a third party could see it and so we were worried about their safety."

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Lawmakers and privacy advocates were skeptical of the tech giants' defense. 

For example, by phasing out third-party tracking cookies, Google, with its widely popular set of services like YouTube, Google Maps and Android, would have a competitive advantage through its first-party tracking. 

Essentially, it would be providing privacy from others, but not from Google itself, experts said. All while benefiting their own profits.

"Because Google knows who you are when you register an account or connect to their software via phone or browser, they don't need cookies to predict your behavior or know who you are," said Liz O'Sullivan, technology director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. "Google has GPS, they have your email, your search history. All of that is way more valuable than a simple cookie. So eliminating them won't even be a drop in the bucket in protecting privacy." 

Gabriel Weinberg is a direct competitor to Google, as the CEO of DuckDuckGo, the privacy-focused search engine. In 2018, he called out Google for owning the domain name Duck.com, which was redirected to the search giant.

At the time, Weinberg said it frequently confused DuckDuckGo users, and also raised issues with how difficult it was to add the search engine into Chrome. 

"Google and Facebook routinely engage in privacy-washing, a deliberate attempt to use privacy to help their brand, but not actually deliver it to users," Weinberg said in a message after the hearing. "It misleads people into a false sense of privacy, and also is a primary contributor to the powerlessness people feel when they find out they aren't really getting what they were promised."