It appears Jeff Bezos’s streak as the only big tech robber baron not to be grilled by U.S. Congress is coming to a close.
Cutthroat tactics are par for the course at Amazon, a company as closely associated with bullying subsidies out of local U.S. governments as it is with the burnout of its own employees. So it came it as little surprise that a Wall Street Journal investigation published last week found many long suspected: that the company uses seller data to inform its own private-label products.
In other words, according to the Journal, the independent sellers lucky enough to find success on Amazon may well have had their products reverse engineered and found themselves competing with the same company they rely on to reach customers. But the main problem is that last July, Amazon’s associate general counsel, Nate Sutton, told U.S. Congress explicitly that “we don’t use individual seller data directly to compete”—a claim the company has maintained in the months since.
“If true, these allegations contradict previous testimony and written responses that Amazon submitted to the Committee,” reads a letter, released this morning, addressed to Bezos and signed seven members of Congress. The lawmakers further characterise Amazon’s statements as appearing to be “misleading, and possibly criminally false or perjurious.”
U.S. Reps. Jerry Nadler, David Cicilline, Matt Gaetz, and other signatories used the opportunity to scold Amazon for its lack of cooperation thus far with Congress’s ongoing antitrust investigation. “Last September we requested documents and communications related to Amazon’s relationship with sellers, including Amazon’s use of third-party sellers’ data,” the letter reads. “Amazon has not made an adequate production in response to this request, and—seven months after the original request—significant gaps remain.” Given the company’s history of stalling and noncompliance, they end with a veiled threat to the CEO that “although we expect that you will testify on a voluntary basis, we reserve the right to resort to compulsory process if necessary.”
Although Amazon has access to a great deal more data, physical retailers also create their own brands to compete with third-party products for sale in their stores. Amazon does this on a wide scale, maintaining dozens of private-label brands like Pinzon, North Eleven, and Rivet that have few obvious ties to the company, which means it may not be clear to consumers that they’re buying Amazon goods.
This letter comes three days after Senator Josh Hawley—whose often confusing motivations notwithstanding—requested that the Department of Justice open a criminal investigation into Amazon, based on the findings of that same Wall Street Journal report. It’s also being made public on International Workers Day, when an unknown number of Amazon and Whole Foods employees on Bezos’s payroll are expected to engage in sick-outs and strikes to protest what they feel are inadequate workplace responses to the coronavirus pandemic.