Amazon Tells Congress Bezos Will Testify in Tech Power Probe

The House Judiciary Committee, which oversees the antitrust panel, has been investigating competition in the technology sector, with a focus on how the largest companies run their sprawling digital platforms.

Bloomberg News

June 15, 2020

3 Min Read
Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon
MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

(Bloomberg) -- Inc. told congressional investigators examining the market power of the largest technology companies that it would make Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos available to testify.

A lawyer for the e-commerce company sent the House Judiciary Committee a letter on Sunday saying Amazon was “committed to cooperating with your inquiry and will make the appropriate executive available to testify,” according to the letter, a copy of which was seen by Bloomberg. “This includes making Jeff Bezos available to testify at a hearing with the other CEOs this summer,” the letter said.

The New York Times reported earlier on the letter. Jodi Seth, an Amazon spokeswoman, confirmed that the company would make Bezos available.

The powerful House Judiciary Committee, which oversees the antitrust panel, has been investigating competition in the technology sector, with a focus on how the largest companies run their sprawling digital platforms. Representative David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat who is leading the investigation, has sought appearances by top tech company chiefs before wrapping the probe and recommending changes to antitrust law.

Last September, Cicilline’s subcommittee sent extensive document requests to Amazon, Facebook Inc., Apple Inc. and Google parent Alphabet Inc., seeking detailed information about acquisitions, business practices, executive communications, previous probes and lawsuits.

The companies and panel have said there has been extensive production of documents, but Cicilline has said that there are key pieces of information he is seeking to inform the changes he will propose in his report.

“The testimony of CEOs and the production of internal documents is essential to complete this bipartisan investigation into the state of competition in the digital marketplace,” Cicilline said in response to Amazon’s announcement. “The Antitrust Subcommittee will continue to use the tools at our disposal to ensure we gather whatever information is necessary for our work.”

Cicilline has focused much of his ire on Amazon. He has repeatedly pressured Bezos over reports that appeared to contradict testimony from an Amazon lawyer about its treatment of the third-party merchants on its site.

Company lawyer Nate Sutton told the committee in a 2019 appearance that Amazon doesn’t use data it collects to favor its own products over third-party sellers and doesn’t use individual seller data to launch competing goods. A recent Wall Street Journal report, though, contended that company employees did use such seller-specific data to develop competing products. Amazon has repeatedly denied it was untruthful and says it’s investigating the practices described in the report.

Cicilline has repeatedly threatened to compel testimony from Bezos, and the committee has the power to issue subpoenas for additional documents and appearances. While Amazon’s moves may extend negotiations or make moot the possibility of a legal clash, Cicilline is also prepared to use subpoena power for information and testimony, according to three people familiar with the talks.

As recently as last month Amazon was resisting calls for Bezos to testify, saying only that the company was prepared to make “the appropriate Amazon executive” available. The other three companies didn’t say if they planned to send their CEOs.

Companies are reluctant to send their chief executive officers to testify before Congress because “they are afraid it will be a show trial in which they get pilloried,” said William Kovacic, a professor of competition law at George Washington University Law School. “They know this panel will be well prepared.”

Amazon has “cooperated extensively” with investigators, Robert Kelner, of the law firm Covington & Burling, wrote. The letter went on to say Congress and the company would need to “resolve a number of questions” about the timing and format of such a hearing and outstanding document requests.

In addition to the House scrutiny, Amazon is contending with a new antitrust investigation by the California Attorney General’s Office, according to two people familiar with the matter. The state’s probe, which is in the preliminary stage, is focused on examining how Amazon offers a platform for third-party sellers to reach customers while at the same time competing against those vendors with its own products, the people said. That dual role has been criticized as a conflict of interest. The Wall Street Journal previously reported the California probe.

The Federal Trade Commission is also investigating Amazon.

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