The US Federal Trade Commission filed a long awaited antitrust lawsuit against Amazon.com on Tuesday, and asked the court to consider forcing the online retailer to sell assets as the government pressed on with its fight to rein in Big Tech’s domination of the internet.
The FTC said that Amazon restricts retailers on its marketplace from discounting, which stifled competition, and forced sellers to use its ‘fulfillment service,’ a reference to its nationwide network of delivery vans and warehouses, which some critics say should be hived off from Amazon’s web business.
The lawsuit had been expected after years of complaints that Amazon.com and other tech giants abused their dominance of search, social media and online retailing to become gate keepers on the most lucrative aspects of the internet.
The lawsuit, which was joined by 17 state attorneys general, follows a four-year investigation and federal lawsuits filed against Alphabet’s Google and Meta Platforms’ Facebook.
The FTC said that it was asking the court to issue a permanent injunction ordering Amazon.com to stop its unlawful conduct. The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Seattle, where Amazon is based.
“Left unchecked, Amazon will continue its illegal course of conduct to maintain its monopoly power,” the FTC said in its complaint which asked the court “to put an end to Amazon’s illegal course of conduct, pry loose Amazon’s monopolistic control, deny Amazon the fruits of its unlawful practices, and restore the lost promise of competition.”
The FTC complaint asked for the court to consider “any preliminary or permanent equitable relief, including but not limited to structural relief, necessary to restore fair competition.”
Structural relief in antitrust jargon generally means a company sells an asset, such as a part of its business.
Amazon said that the FTC lawsuit was wrongheaded and would hurt consumers by leading to higher prices and slower deliveries.
“The practices the FTC is challenging have helped to spur competition and innovation across the retail industry, and have produced greater selection, lower prices, and faster delivery speeds for Amazon customers and greater opportunity for the many businesses that sell in Amazon’s store,” said David Zapolsky, Amazon’s general counsel.
Amazon shares were down 3.3%, although some investors saw upside.
“Either way, the shareholders win. If FTC loses its status quo, if company breaks up, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole as the AWS (cloud) business will command a very high multiple. Analysts will figure this out soon, but for now it’s ‘shoot first, ask questions later,'” said Thomas Hayes, chairman at Great Hill Capital.
The FTC said that Amazon, founded in 1994 and worth more than $1 trillion, punished sellers that sought to offer prices that were lower than Amazon’s by making it difficult for consumers to find the seller on Amazon’s platform.
Other allegations include that Amazon gave preference to its own products on its platforms over competitors also on the platform.
FTC Chair Lina Khan said that Amazon had used illegal tactics to fend off companies that would have risen to challenge its monopoly.
“Amazon is now exploiting that monopoly power to harm its customers, both the tens of millions of families that shop on Amazon’s platform and the hundreds of thousands of sellers that use Amazon to reach them,” she said.
Khan, while a law student, wrote about Amazon.com’s dominance in online retailing for “The Yale Law Journal” and was on the staff of the House committee that wrote a report issued in 2020 that advocated reining in four tech giants: Amazon.com, Apple, Google and Facebook.
Amazon’s critics welcomed the lawsuit.
“No corporation has ever centralized this much power across so many crucial sectors. Left unchecked, Amazon’s power to dictate and control threatens the rule of law and our ability to maintain open, democratically governed markets,” said Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which has pushed for the government to act against Amazon.
The need to take action against Big Tech has been one of the few ideas that Democrats and Republicans have agreed on. During the Trump administration which ended in 2021, the Justice Department and FTC opened probes into Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon.
The Justice Department has sued Google twice – once under Republican Donald Trump regarding its search business and a second time on advertising technology since Democratic President Joe Biden took office. The FTC sued Facebook during the Trump administration and Biden’s FTC has pressed forward with the lawsuit.
Reuters – By Diane Bartz, David Shepardson and Samrhitha A