Jeff Bezos has conceded he cannot guarantee that Amazon has not used the data of third-party sellers to benefit his own company – an admission that will trigger further controversy over the e-commerce giant’s business practices.
In his first ever testimony before Congress, Mr Bezos was quizzed about a recent report that claimed Amazon had used such data to make its own, competing products.
The investigation by the Wall Street Journal found some executives at Amazon had access to seller data that was then used to discover bestselling items. It added that said such executives had found a way to avoid the firm’s restrictions on the practice, a work-around known as “going over the fence”.
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On Wednesday, Mr Bezos, along with with Apple’s boss Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai, was questioned by members of the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust.
Democratic congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, whose district includes Seattle, where Amazon has its headquarters, pointed to the WSJ report and to testimony given last year by the firm’s associate general counsel Nate Sutton, who said Amazon did not use “specific seller data” when producing its own label items.
“We have a policy against using seller-specific data to aid our private label business,” said Mr Bezos, 58, the world’s richest man. “But I can’t guarantee you that that policy has never been violated.”
Pressed on the matter, Mr Bezos said he was looking into the newspaper’s report. “I’ll take that as you’re not denying it,” said Ms Jayapal, who has often criticised Amazon over its treatment and payment of workers, and its efforts to avoid paying federal taxes in the US.
At the heart of the hearing was whether the giants had simply become too big and too powerful, and were in need of breaking up.
The evidence being gathered by the members of the House of Representatives represents the most serious antitrust examination of the technology sector since the hearings in 2000 against Microsoft, which the government accused of abusing its monopoly position. Microsoft initially lost the case, but won on appeal and agreed to a settlement that saw it agree to share some of its software with third-party companies.
Mr Bezos was not the only tech boss to come in for sharp questions. Committee chairman David Cicilline, starting his comments by accusing Google of theft.
Addressing Mr Pichai, he said: “Why does Google steal content from honest businesses?”
Mr Cicilline alleged that Google stole reviews from the company Yelp Inc and said Google threatened to delist the company from search results if it objected.
Mr Pichai said he wished to know the specifics of the accusation. “We conduct ourselves to the highest standards,” he added.
Mr Zuckerberg was asked about Facebook’s purchase of Instagram in 2012, and whether it was acquired because it was a threat. He said the deal had been reviewed by the Federal Trade Commission and that Instagram at the time was a tiny photo-sharing app rather than a social media phenomenon. “People didn’t think of them competing with us in that space,” he said.
For several Republicans on the panel, the hearing was an opportunity to accuse technology firms of being “anti-conservative”.
“Big tech is out to get conservatives,“ said congressman Jim Jordan.
At one point Mr Zuckerberg found himself being asked about the actions of Twitter, an incident that suggested some of the members of the committee drew little distinction between various social media platforms.
In particular, he was asked by the committee’s ranking Republican, congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, about the temporary restriction of Mr Trump Jr’s Twitter account, after he posted a video featuring a controversial doctor, Stella Immanuel, making false claims about coronavirus cures and stating that people “don’t need masks”. Where the tweet was posted now reads: “This Tweet is no longer available because it violated the Twitter Rules.”
Mr Sensenbrenner said he would not personally take hydroxychloroquine to counter the coronavirus – a drug that most medical experts say could be harmful but which the president and Ms Immanuel continue to promote, but asked whether such a decision ought to left to a person and their physician.
“There still is a debate as to whether it is effective either at treating or preventing Covid-19,” said Mr Sensenbrenner.
Mr Zuckerberg responded: “Well, first, to be clear, I think what you might be referring to happened on Twitter so it’s hard for me to speak to that, but I can talk to our policies about this.”
Additional reporting by Associated Press