Josh Hawley again Demands FTC ‘Overhaul’ amid Accusations Amazon Steals Seller Data

Sen. Josh Hawley during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., December 11, 2019. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

Senator Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) has reiterated his calls to “overhaul the FTC” in the wake of fresh allegations that Amazon steals independent-seller data to inform its business decisions, in violation of its own published policies.

While the Federal Trade Commission is currently exploring past mergers to see whether Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Google-parent-company Alphabet broke federal antitrust laws, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Amazon regularly goes “over the fence” to look at sales data from one third-party merchant to help boost its growing trade in house-brand products.

Hawley, who proposed a massive overhaul of the FTC the day before the regulators announced their antitrust probe, tells National Review that the commission as currently structured “isn’t capable of dealing with today’s tech issues.”

“Amazon managers are reportedly stealing data from third parties and ripping off their products even though Amazon told Congress last year that they don’t,” Hawley says. “Stealing data to learn secrets about its competitors isn’t the free market.”

Amazon told the Journal in a statement that “we strictly prohibit our employees from using nonpublic, seller-specific data to determine which private label products to launch,” reiterating a claim made by Amazon associate general counsel and former DOJ antitrust attorney Nate Sutton, who told Representative Pramila Jayapal (D., Wisc.) during a House hearing last July that the company does not “use any of that specific seller data in creating our own private brand products.”

But former and current employees told the Journal that the policy was not strictly enforced, with some executives accessing proprietary data to conduct market research, while other reports that aggregated seller data were drawn from single sellers. Amazon’s stated policy allows the company to access accumulated data, defined as the data of products with two or more sellers (or one seller, in cases where Amazon sells returned or damaged versions of the item in question.)

Hawley’s FTC proposal calls for the body to lose its independence and be subsumed into the Department of Justice, and for its current five-member leadership team to be replaced by a Senate-confirmed director who would serve renewable five-year terms and report to the DOJ’s associate attorney general. It also calls for former administrators to be barred from lobbying for Big Tech firms for two years after they leave the FTC, in an attempt to limit the “revolving-door relationships” between former FCC officials and tech companies. The latter proposal is similar to a measure that Senator Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) proposed in October as part of her presidential-campaign platform.

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