Fresh off squeezing Facebook earlier this week, an international panel of lawmakers meeting in Ottawa tried putting pressure on Amazon, Microsoft and Apple for topics ranging from alleged anti-competitive activity and their privacy practices.
And, like Facebook, their questions circled back to the fact that lower officials instead of CEOs of the companies subpoenaed didn’t show up.
At a combined hearing Wednesday of the House of Commons ethics and privacy committee and the International Grand Committee on big data, privacy and democracy (a committee of lawmakers from 12 countries), Canadian MP Charlie Angus accused Amazon of being “the kill zone of competition.”
Referring to reports of a price war with startup Diapers.com, Angus accused the online giant of engaging in predatory pricing and suggested it should be the target of anti-trust regulators.
“The power you have through all your platforms to drive down prices and put people out of business,” he told Mark Ryland, director of security Engineering within the office of the chief information security officer for Amazon Web Services
Ryland replied that he’s not an expert in competition law, adding that Amazon faces “robust competition.” Some of those companies use AWS for their businesses, he pointed out.
“You’ve got people who use your cloud services, then you can drive down prices against mom and pops (stores),” retorted Angus.
“In Canada,” Angus continued, “one of the great advantages you have is you don’t have to pay taxes the way our poor businesses have to.” In the U.S. Amazon recently made US$11 billion profit, and got $129 million rebate. “You’re the biggest welfare case in the planet,” Angus said. “Don’t you think it’s our job to rein you guys in and make sure there are fair rules in the marketplace?”
Ryland reminded Angus that the purpose of the three-day hearings was security, consumer protection and privacy, which is why he was testifying.
That’s why the committee wanted Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to testify, retorted Angus. “We want answers: What’s a fair taxation rate, how do we ensure competition, how do we ensure no predatory pricing and putting businesses out of business …Should we call Alexa or Siri?”
Later, UK member of parliament Damian Collins, who headed a committee looking into the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal and is a member of the International Grand Committee, took aim at Erik Neuenschwander, Apple’s manager of user privacy.
“Facebook’s done a lot of damage to your industry. Why do you do business with them,” he asked. “If you believe in your [privacy] principles then you should deal with people who abide by your principles.”
Even if users couldn’t get the Facebook app through the Apple Store they could still access the service from the Facebook web site, Neuenschwander replied. Besides, it wouldn’t necessarily impact privacy, he added.
It would get headlines, Lucas pointed out. Neuenschwander agreed, but repeated that overall it wouldn’t have much of an impact.
“You present yourselves as the good guys,” Lucas pressed, “but you’re facilitating the bad guys.”
“We have taken many steps over the years to raise the bar higher than any other platform on privacy and user control over data,” said Neuenschwander.
The hearing also heard from Alan Davidson, vice-president for global policy, trust and security at Mozilla, which makes the Firefox browser. “We believe our industry can do a much better at protecting privacy in our products,” he said.
“We’ve learned that creating products with privacy by default is very powerful.” It’s “unrealistic” to expect consumers to read all the privacy policies and options in a product to protect themselves, he said. “To make privacy real the burden needs to shift from consumers to companies.”
So, for example, Firefox will soon come with a capability that defeats web site information trackers turned on by default.
The tech industry’s approach to privacy — tell users what personal information a product collects and let them opt out if they want — isn’t working, Davidson said, so regulation is needed.
Good privacy law, he added, needs clear rules about what personal information companies can collect and use, has strong rights for individuals including revokable consent about specific uses of data and include an effective enforcement agency.
Davidson also said if social media platforms had to include more information on who pays for and places political ads it would go a long way to fighting disinformation in elections.
The International Grand Committee and the Canadian ethics committee is trying to decide if governments need to increase regulation or if tech companies can on their own deal with issues like fake news and privacy violations of users.
The Committee meets next in Ireland in November.