Amazon ‘has expressed reservation’ about CEO testimony, Cicilline says


Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, founder of space venture Blue Origin and owner of The Washington Post, participates in an event hosted by the Air Force Association September 19, 2018 in National Harbor, Maryland.

Alex Wong | Getty Images

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is the only chief executive to have “expressed reservation” about appearing before the House Antitrust Subcommittee in connection to the panel’s antitrust probe, Chairman David Cicilline, D-R.I. said Thursday.

Ciclline said in a livestreamed interview with Politico that he has spoken with the CEOs of Apple, Alphabet and Facebook, three of the four companies the committee is investigating for potential antitrust violations.

“The only CEO who has expressed reservation about appearing, through a representative, has been Amazon,” Cicilline said. Cicilline said he’s spoken to the CEOs of the other three companies “very recently” and is not concerned about getting them to testify voluntarily. 

Cicilline signed a bipartisan letter last week asking Bezos to testify before the committee. The letter expressed concern that Amazon’s witness at a prior hearing may have misled Congress about how the company uses data from third-party sellers.

So far, Cicilline said, Bezos has not committed to testifying. The representatives threatened to subpoena Bezos if he chose not to appear before the subcommittee voluntarily.

A report from The Wall Street Journal appeared to contradict the witness’ claims that Amazon does not use data from individual sellers to make decisions about launching its own competing products. The report, based on documents and interviews with former Amazon employees, said Amazon employees working on private label products had been able to use aggregate data reports with sales information on multiple sellers to deduce the performance of individual products.

The letter to Bezos warned that based on the Journal’s reporting, Amazon’s statements to the committee “appear to be misleading, and possibly criminally false or perjurious.”

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson previously told CNBC in a statement, “It’s simply incorrect to suggest that Amazon was intentionally misleading in our testimony.”

“This is not an insignificant issue, it’s a central issue in the investigation,” Cicilline said Thursday, adding that if he determines Amazon’s witness misled Congress, a perjury referral “would be appropriate.”

Timeline derailed by the pandemic

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., speaks with reporters after a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus in the Capitol on Wednesday, January 8, 2020.

Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has shaken up Cicilline’s initial timeline for the subcommittee to deliver its report on competition in digital markets. The chairman initially hoped to wrap up the report by early April, but said Thursday he now expects it to be released by the end of the spring. 

He still believes it’s possible to draft legislation in response to the recommendations in the report but said having the time to enact new laws before the end of the year “is an open question.” He said his staff is still working on document requests and reviews and is nearing final stages.

Even without new legislation, Cicilline said he “fully expect[s]” the topic of market concentration and the power of dominant tech companies to be a key issue in the 2020 presidential election. He said the subcommittee’s work “can help inform the debate.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the apparent Democratic nominee, has been less vocal about antitrust and Big Tech than his former primary opponents like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. But Cicilline said he hopes Biden would appoint strong antitrust enforcers to the federal agencies if he wins the election.

“I think we have not had serious antitrust enforcement in this country for a very long time, sadly under both Republicans and Democrats. So this an opportunity I think to reawaken antitrust enforcement in America, to modernize our antitrust statutes and to make it clear that we expect those charged with leading our government and leading antitrust enforcement agencies to be creative and smart and aggressive in promoting competition that benefits consumers,” he said. 

“Joe Biden has a record of fighting for working people and fighting for the little guy and little gal and I think he will be really key to ensuring that these agencies are staffed with people who are going to take this responsibility seriously and promote competition and resist mergers that are anticompetitive or that generate too great a market share to be good for consumers,” Cicilline said.

Cicilline is advocating for a merger freeze in the next stimulus bill, with the exception of companies that are already in distress. Cicilline said the antitrust agencies should focus their attention on more pressing issues in their jurisdiction related to the pandemic, such as price gouging.

He said he was impressed by the Department of Justice’s work on price gouging based on a briefing last week but less so with the Federal Trade Commission, which he said doesn’t “seem to understand or accept the notion that they have a role here.” He said the next stimulus proposals will likely include language addressing that enforcement.

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