-- The European Union’s antitrust cop has taken an aggressive lead
in regulating U.S. tech giants in recent years. But with its latest query into
Amazon.com Inc., the EU is echoing the views of a 29-year-old legal
scholar across the Atlantic.
Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said Wednesday she had
begun a preliminary probe into whether data the e-commerce giant
collects from retailers that sell on its site gives Amazon an edge
in marketing its own products to customers and squeezing out more
sales as a result.
said the EU was looking into the issue because it came up in a broad
e-commerce sector investigation concluded last year, but also
because “this is also what a lot of people are talking about by now,
so we do the follow-up.”
to a large degree, Lina
Khan, an academic fellow at Columbia University Law School,
helped shape that debate.
a student at Yale Law School, Khan wrote a paper for
the Yale Law Journal called "Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox," which
argues that the current antitrust enforcement framework is
ill-equipped to tackle Amazon’s dominance and the potential harm it
poses to competition. Her work was cited by the head of the Justice
Department’s antitrust division, Makan Delrahim, in a speech in
April as an example of fresh thinking on digital platforms.
has highlighted what the EU cited Wednesday as a preliminary
concern: that Amazon can exploit information it collects about
third-party sellers to better compete against them. At a press
conference in Brussels, Vestager noted Amazon’s dual role as a
platform for retailers to sell their goods as well as a merchant in
its own right. That position makes Amazon privy to data about the
customers of retailers it competes with.
declined to comment on Vestager’s remarks.
question here is about the data” Amazon collects from smaller
merchants on its site, Vestager said. “Do you then also use this
data to do your own calculations, as to what is the new big thing,
what is it that people want, what kind of offers do they like to
receive, what makes them buy things? That has made us start a
preliminary” investigation, she said.
ideas on Amazon fit into a broader movement -- mockingly dubbed “hipster
antitrust” by critics -- that is led by a
small group of policy wonks who are encouraging tougher competition
enforcement by the U.S. They argue the current playbook for policing
mergers and anti-competitive conduct has fallen short and want to
return antitrust policy to its early 20th-century roots -- when
regulators went after monopolies in railroads and oil -- to take on
new corporate giants, particularly in the tech sector.
a message that is gaining attention in Washington. Its proponents,
who call themselves "New Brandeis" after the Supreme Court justice,
have sparked debate at academic and professional conferences. This
month, the Federal Trade Commission, which shares antitrust
enforcement jurisdiction with the Justice Department, opened a
series of hearings to consider whether the existing framework needs
a revamp. One of the panels will
consider looking at conduct by tech platforms that may be harming
to Vestager’s concerns, Khan says Amazon’s current business
structure presents a conflict of interest that stems from how it
competes with the same companies that depend on its platform to
reach consumers. That dynamic allows Amazon to solidify dominance
and thwart competition, she said.
uses its marketplace as a petri dish to identify which independent
sellers’ goods are doing well and then rolls out direct replicas,"
Khan said in an interview Wednesday. That lets Amazon appropriate
rewards from the risks that independent sellers take on, she added.
paper in the Columbia Law Review, Khan
argues for separating Amazon’s business of selling its own products
and its business as a platform used by other retailers. Such a
structural fix isn’t radical, she insists, and has been used in
should recover this principle for dominant tech platforms that serve
as critical intermediaries,” she said.
is part of an influential group of new voices that are pushing for a
rethinking on antitrust and the dominance of technology platforms,
Stucke, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, who
has written about big data and competition policy. Their movement is
resonating due to the dominance of technology firms and evidence
that markets are more concentrated and less competitive, said
Stucke, who welcomes the EU inquiry into Amazon.
see this evolution in thinking around and how data can provide a
competitive advantage," said Stucke.
Vestager and the EU in general have long taken a more aggressive
approach to regulating data and tech companies more broadly, the new
chairman of the FTC, Joe Simons, has said one of his key goals is to
examine the online economy and whether tech giants including Google,
Facebook Inc. and Amazon are undermining competition.
debate surrounding antitrust scrutiny for Amazon has also picked up
steam because the company has come under fire in recent months from
U.S. President Donald Trump, who has accused the company of crushing
small businesses, violating anti-monopoly laws, dodging taxes and
taking advantage of the U.S. Postal Service. On the opposite end of
the political spectrum, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has taken aim
at Amazon for underpaying its warehouse workers and treating them
has said Sanders has made “inaccurate and misleading accusations”
about wages and benefits and has said the postal service makes money
from its packages because the company does most of the processing
has already been in the powerful EU antitrust regulator’s crosshairs
but has so far come out relatively unscathed.
EU ordered the Seattle-based company in 2017 to repay Luxembourg 250
million euros ($294 million at the time) in allegedly unpaid taxes,
a pittance compared to the 13 billion euros the regulator ordered Apple
Inc. to pay back. Amazon also escaped fines in a 2016 EU settlement
over e-book contracts with publishers. By contrast, search
powerhouse Google, has been mired in antitrust investigations in
Europe for almost 10 years and has been hit with record
fines of 4.3 billion euros.