In late April, Amazon caught heat from members of the House Judiciary Committee for seemingly lying about the company’s use of data on third party vendors selling in Amazon’s marketplace. Contradicting Amazon in-house counsel (and former DOJ Antitrust official) Nate Sutton’s sworn testimony on the subject in July of 2019, the Wall Street Journal broke the story on April 23rd that Amazon is using proprietary information generated for third-party sellers on the platform to develop its house-brand products.
The same day the story broke, Amazon indicated the company was conducting an internal investigation while “respectfully” maintaining that the allegations are “unfounded.”
Members of the House Judiciary committee, including Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Cicilline, appropriately sent Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos a letter calling on him to appear before the committee and testify on Amazon’s potentially “criminally false or perjurious” testimony on the company’s business practices. The letter cited Rep. Cicilline and Rep. Jayapal’s line of questioning on the use of third-party seller data, when Sutton stated, “we do not use any seller data to compete with them.” His testimony is now proven false by the 20-plus current or former Amazon employees that confirmed using the data was “standard operating procedure.”
House members sent that letter May 1st, nearly two weeks ago. Aside from Amazon’s singular tweet on the subject, neither Bezos as CEO nor Amazon as a corporation has formally replied to the House members.
Given the severity of lying to Congress, Bezos and Amazon’s lack of response is concerning. In the face of credible proof of Amazon’s anti-competitive behavior, Bezos is hoping the news cycle moves on quickly enough for everyone to forget about his company’s perjurious statements.
His flippancy in ignoring a letter sent from not only the overseers of the country’s antitrust regulation, but the elected representatives of the people, suggests Bezos considers his empire too big to jail. Bezos must heed the call to testify and be held accountable to democratic processes in front of Congress and the public. Similarly, Congress needs to act as if the premises of American democracy are under attack from Bezos and Amazon — because they are — and ratchet up its inherent rights to enforce an assault on its legislative prerogatives.
UPDATE 5/19/2020: On May 15th, Amazon finally responded to the letter. The company’s response notably omitted any mention of Bezos, instead offering to “make the appropriate Amazon executive available to the Committee to address these important issues.” According to the Times, lawmakers discussed Bezos testifying in front of the Judiciary Committee before sending the letter on May 1st, but the company was “resistant” to those efforts, as it continues to be in its formal response. Amazon also maintained that counsel Nate Sutton did not lie to Congress in his testimony last year, stating, “we disagree strongly with any suggestion that we have attempted to mislead the Committee or not been cooperative with the investigation.”
The same day as Amazon’s response, Antitrust Subcommittee chairman David Cicilline tweeted that “no one is above the law, no matter how rich and powerful,” and threatened to subpoena Bezos if he refuses to testify voluntarily. Given Amazon’s continued resistance to putting Bezos in the hot seat, Judiciary Committee members may have to use their subpoena power to hold Bezos and Amazon accountable, rather than just accepting testimony from another Amazon underling. Despite the litany of accusations against the company, including anti-competitive behavior and mistreatment of warehouse workers, Bezos has never testified before Congress. RDP has long argued that House and Senate committee subpoena powers are underutilized against corporate elites.
Members of the Judiciary Committee can, and should, compel Bezos to testify on Amazon’s perjurious statements.
UPDATE 6/19/2020: A month and a half after after the House Judiciary members attempted to hold Jeff Bezos accountable, the CEO finally agreed to testify—but there’s a catch, of course. In Amazon’s response to Congress members, the company attempted to impose conditions on Bezos’s testimony, saying he would only be open to appearing alongside the other CEOs currently under investigation by the House Judiciary Committee.
The response is a challenge to Congress’s power to hold Bezos accountable. The company warns that Bezos doesn’t run the “day-to-day businesses” relevant to the investigation. But now, more than ever, the public deserves to know about the functioning and activities of the world’s largest internet company from the CEO himself, not only because of its perjurious anti-competitive activities and mistreatment of workers, but for its contributions to the police surveillance state that disproportionately targets Black people.
Bezos’s testimony does not have to be the drawn-out negotiation his lawyers are making it out to be. Committee members can, and must, use subpoena power to compel Bezos’s testimony on their terms.
PS And if Bezos’ testimony does in fact need to be supplemented by senior executives more enmeshed in “day-to-day” operations, those executives should be subpoenaed as well! Amazon is a crucial company in the American economy and Congress is not limited to hearing from a single representative of the behemoth.