US Congress’ grilling of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google’s CEOs had a handful of ‘gotcha’ moments where they acknowledged allegations of anti-competitive practices and ‘abuse of monopoly power’ against their companies.
Among the 15-member sub-committee that investigated the companies for over a year and led a fierce interrogation of their heads on Thursday was Representative Pramila Jayapal.
Her relentless questioning of Jeff Bezos got him to admit that Amazon may have violated its policy of not using third-party seller data to make business decisions.
The Indian-American Congresswoman led a tough line of questioning on Facebook’s “bullying” of its competitors like Instagram, which it acquired in 2012.
A Democrat from Washington state and a “lifelong organiser” according to her Twitter bio, Jayapal has donned many hats in an illustrious career, ranging from Wall Street to civil rights activism and politics.
Who is Pramila Jayapal?
Jayapal was born in Chennai in 1965 and spent her initial years growing up in India, Indonesia and Singapore. She moved to the United States at the age of 16 to attend college at Georgetown University followed by an MBA. Her father, MP Jayapal, was a marketing professional and mother, Maya Jayapal, a writer.
Jayapal worked in a number of industries in both the public and private sector, and published her first book in 2000, ‘Pilgrimage to India: A Woman Revisits Her Homeland’.
Having worked on Wall Street as a financial analyst, she moved to the public sector in 1991 before turning to activism post 9/11. Jayapal founded ‘Hate Free Zone’, an advocacy group championing civil and immigration rights, which successfully sued the George W Bush administration to stop the deportation of 4,000 Somalis. She became a naturalised American citizen in 2000.
Elected in 2016, Jayapal is now serving her second term in Congress representing Washington’s 7th District, which encompasses most of Seattle, where Amazon is headquartered.
Fierce Trump Critic & Stance on Kashmir
Jayapal is considered one of the leading figures of the Democratic Party’s progressive caucus.
In Congress, she has been a leader on immigration, including fighting the Trump administration’s policies of separating immigrant children from their parents and crafting legislation to help expand legal immigration to America.
In September 2019, a month after the revocation of Jammu & Kashmir’s special status, Jayapal had written to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “press” the Indian government to end restrictions in Kashmir.
She had also expressed concerns over the human rights situation in Jammu and Kashmir last October. Her resolution on Kashmir had irked External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar.
According to the Washington Post, the External Affairs Minister (EAM) “abruptly cancelled” the meeting with senior members of the US Congress after they refused demands to exclude Jayapal from their delegation.
As a result, Congressman Eliot Engel, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called off the meeting.
“I am aware of that (Congressional) resolution. I don’t think it’s a fair understanding of the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, or a fair characterisation of what the government of India is doing. And I have no interest in meeting (Jayapal),” Jaishankar told a group of Indian reporters in Washington.
Jayapal, along with 13 other Congress members, also raised issues related to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam and the situation of minorities in India at the hearings.
Getting Bezos to Admit Amazon’s Data Misuse
Having escaped questioning for nearly the first two hours, Amazon CEO Bezos’ first question came from Jayapal, who pressed him on whether Amazon has ever used third-party seller data to make business decisions. Amazon has consistently stated this is against company policy.
In a response where he appeared to fumble for the right words, Bezos replied “I can’t guarantee you that policy has never been violated.”
When further pressed upon by Jayapal, on whether Amazon ever used data of sellers on its platform to create and promote its own products to edge out third-party products, Bezos did not deny it.
Cornering Zuckerberg on Facebook’s ‘Abuse of Power’
If Jayapal grilled Bezos regarding the abuse of his platform to undercut third-party sellers, she took on Zuckerberg regarding Facebook’s aggressive behaviour towards competitors and eliminating competition by making copycat products or threatening to clone them.
“How many competitors did Facebook end up copying,” asked Jayapal as Zuckerberg avoided answering the question directly.
"Has Facebook ever threatened to clone the products of another company while also attempting to acquire that company?" Jayapal grilled Zuckerberg on Facebook's history of emulating competing products including Instagram.
"Facebook's very model makes it hard for new companies to flourish," she said.
Jayapal unearthed emails in which Zuckerberg told the founder of Instagram, during negotiations to acquire the app in 2012, that he was building a copycat camera service.
“Facebook is a case study in monopoly power: It harvests and monetises our data, then uses it to spy on competitors – to copy, acquire, and kill rivals,” she stated on Twitter regarding her exchange with Zuckerberg,
“This destructive model makes it impossible for new companies to flourish – harming our democracy, small businesses, and consumers,” she said.
Defending Independent Journalism & Taking on Pichai
Jayapal also took on the cause of independent journalism and how publications across the United States have been deprived of advertising revenues at the hands of Google’s ad policies, which allegedly have driven many local publications to shut shop.
In doing so, she bluntly asked Google CEO Pichai, “What is Google’s share of the ad exchange market?”
As Pichai tried to assuage the question with a “Google is a popular choice”, Jayapal went on to state “(Google) is running the marketplace, is acting on the buy-side and its acting on the sell-side which is a major conflict of interest.”
Pichai defended his company’s ad tools saying they are “deeply committed to journalism” and that this was a low margin business.
“Local journalism is necessary for our democracy and we must protect it. That's why I'm concerned about how Google has total control of the ad market as the owner of the market, the ad buyer, AND the ad seller,” she stated on Twitter, adding “That's not only a conflict of interest, it's harmful to our democracy.”