Four misleading claims tech CEOs told Congress

Illustration of Big Tech firms

On Wednesday, the CEOs of four massive tech companies — Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon — testified before a congressional investigation about those companies’ anti-competitive practices.

The CEOs were eager to portray their companies as under constant threat from competitors. However, the congressional subcommittee raised multiple examples of the companies using their power to spy on, crush, coerce, or acquire competitors.

While the hearing did not reveal any particularly new information, it did force Sundar Pichai, Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos to confirm or deny (or obfuscate) their part in the consolidation of power on the Internet. In doing so, they made a number of questionable claims that do not hold up under scrutiny. 

We have had direct experience with some of these issues, and we believe it is important to share our perspective and set the record straight. We will focus mainly on Google and Apple because we have had the most exposure to their practices, but our overarching concerns are applicable across Big Tech.

Claim: Google lets users control their data

Responding to a question from US Rep. Val Demings, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that “we today make it very easy for users to be in control of their data.” This is only partially true, depending on how you define “control.”

This assertion is part of a public relations push Google started last year, during which it implemented new privacy settings and features, such as the ability to turn off personalized ads. But Google continues to collect mountains of data about its users.

True data control would be incompatible with Google’s current business model. Google makes money by creating detailed profiles about all its users and then selling ads on the basis of that information. The process is opaque to users. And this lack of privacy and control is the implicit exchange for access to free services.

Claim: iOS and Android app stores have strong competition

Apple’s iOS controls 25% of the global smartphone market, and Google’s Android mostly takes up the other 75%. (In the valuable US market, Apple enjoys even more market share.)

Nonetheless, when questioned by Rep. Hank Johnson about its monopoly on app distribution on its smartphones, Apple CEO Tim Cook said, “I would describe it as a street fight.” He also said, “There is a competition for developers just as there is a competition for customers.” Cook even said the App Store is just like any other feature, comparing it to a camera.

This argument is patently absurd. Cook is ignoring the fact that the App Store is a market itself, in which Apple holds 100%. 

Developers do not have the option to seek other app distribution methods. Being in business is synonymous with having an app on both the App Store and Google Play. So it is by definition a duopoly on the mobile market.

Claim: Apple is not a gatekeeper

Cook was repeatedly questioned about the App Store and whether it uses its distribution platform to privilege its own apps and suppress competition. 

“Clearly, if Apple is a gatekeeper, what we have done is open the gate wider,” Cook said. “We want to get every app we can on the Store, not keep them off.”

But the App Store — just like Google Play, Facebook’s News Feed, or Amazon’s web hosting service — have become bottlenecks that give these companies immense power to throttle access to consumer markets or abuse data.

Despite Cook’s claims that apps may only be blocked because of privacy or functionality concerns, there is a litany of app developers who say Apple’s App Store rules are opaque, arbitrary, and inconsistently applied. We have experienced Apple’s problematic behavior first-hand with our ProtonVPN iOS app, in which they threatened to remove our app entirely unless we deleted information from our app description that the Chinese and other authoritarian governments deemed objectionable.

Even if we were to accept the “open gate” premise, Apple’s 30% tax handicaps developers in the privacy space, favoring free apps that make their money by abusing people’s data. We have previously written about this in depth.

Claim: Google believes privacy is a universal right

In his submitted opening remarks to the subcommittee, Pichai said, “I’ve always believed that privacy is a universal right and should be available to everyone.”

There’s not much to say about this comment, except that it is extremely ironic. Pichai runs a company whose entire premise is to invade people’s privacy. As his predecessor once said: “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

Doublespeak like this is troubling, and we hope that Congress — and Internet users — are paying attention. Because this isn’t just about antitrust. It’s about access to privacy and being able to control your own data.

We started Proton in 2014 in part because of the same concerns that are coming to light today. We believe society is better served when individuals have more control over their data online. By offering encrypted email, calendar, cloud storage, and other services, Proton is providing consumers with concrete tools to protect their privacy and security.

All these years later, very little about these companies’ business practices has changed, and they’ve only gotten bigger.

Best Regards,
The Proton Team

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About the Author

Andy Yen

Andy is the Founder and CEO of Proton, the company behind ProtonMail and ProtonVPN. He is a long time advocate of privacy rights and has spoken at TED, SXSW, and the Asian Investigative Journalism Conference about online privacy issues. Previously, Andy was a research scientist at CERN and has a PhD in Particle Physics from Harvard University. You can watch his TED talk online to learn more about our mission.