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Antitrust

Jason Boyce: Washington Cannot Let Amazon Water Down Consumer Protection Legislation

It is in Amazon’s interest to twist the arm of lawmakers and prevent protections against internet scams.

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Jason Boyce
The author of this Expert Opinion is Jason Boyce, founder of Avenue7Media

The holiday season is a reminder that with more Americans than ever heading online to do their shopping, lawmakers must continue taking action to prevent consumers from falling prey to internet scammers. That is why it was welcome news when Amazon recently reversed course on its longstanding opposition to bipartisan consumer protection legislation in Congress that would require third-party online marketplaces to verify independent sellers, with the goal of reducing counterfeits and stolen goods from these platforms.

But while Amazon’s public change of heart seemingly paves the way for the eventual passage of the bill, known as the INFORM Consumers Act, lawmakers must ensure that the retail giant and other tech companies do not work behind the scenes to water down the legislation and render it toothless. Counterfeits pose great harm to consumers and small third-party sellers, and Congress must pass strong, comprehensive enforcement mechanisms to adequately protect both groups.

Amazon’s decision to endorse INFORM was certainly a surprise. Just this summer, Amazon launched an aggressive lobbying campaign to kill a more robust version of the legislation. But while Amazon ostensibly supports the current bill, it has reportedly unleashed its lobbyists in the Beltway to weaken it. While lawmakers such as Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., one of the bill’s co-sponsors, say they refuse to let this happen, they should remain on high alert.

This is because we have seen Amazon’s playbook for publicly supporting legislation while simultaneously working to weaken it behind the scenes. For instance, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos won praise earlier this year when he embraced President Joe Biden’s plan to raise the corporate tax rate. But behind the scenes, the company enlisted an army of lobbyists to maintain the research and development tax credit, which has been estimated to save the company hundreds of millions of dollars a year. As I have said before, Bezos’s support for a corporate tax hike is meaningless if the company can continue to engage in egregious tax avoidance schemes.

And it is not just Amazon; other Big Tech companies have resorted to similar “two-faced” tactics to weaken legislation. In April, an investigation by The Markup uncovered how some of the country’s most powerful technology companies, including Facebook and Google, advocated for mostly toothless privacy protection legislation in statehouses across the country — all with the intention of preempting state lawmakers from taking stronger action in the future.

Now with the prospect of a comprehensive consumer protection measure being signed into law, Congress must resist Amazon’s arm twisting. Counterfeits are far too serious of a threat, and watered-down legislation will fall short of creating the bold transparency measures that are desperately needed. Online counterfeiters have been known to peddle toys and children’s products, putting those most vulnerable in grave danger. These products fail to go through robust safety testing, meaning there is potential for serious health consequences.

But what many may not realize is the impact that counterfeits have on third-party sellers. As someone who works with Amazon sellers every day, I know exactly how legitimate businesses suffer when criminals sell fakes at below the market value. Small businesses are doing everything they can to fight these criminals — even if it means spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to do so.

Many of those selling fakes from the comfort of their own homes and hurting American businesses are overseas. According to the Department of Homeland Security, a staggering 85 percent of contraband items seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection came from Hong Kong and China. Nonetheless, Amazon’s marketplace has become a hub for China-based sellers.

Amazon has no problem touting all of the measures it has taken to clean up its third-party marketplace. But, as I have explained, it is a common tactic of Amazon’s PR department to just share the numerator — and not the denominator. Thus, the $700 million it invests to fight fraud is pennies in the bucket when you consider that Amazon’s worldwide gross merchandise volume is estimated to be $490 billion.

It is critical that Congress advances the INFORM Consumers Act as it stands today. While I welcome Amazon’s endorsement of the common-sense measure — along with the other third-party marketplaces that recognize the benefits it would bring to e-commerce shopping — I can only hope it is sincere. Working behind the scenes to weaken this bill will be devastating to the millions of shoppers and sellers who have come to depend on Amazon’s third-party marketplace.

Jason Boyce is the author of “The Amazon Jungle” and founder of Amazon managed services agency, Avenue7Media. Previously, Boyce was an 18-year Top-200 Amazon seller. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

Broadband Breakfast is a decade-old news organization based in Washington that is building a community of interest around broadband policy and internet technology, with a particular focus on better broadband infrastructure, the politics of privacy and the regulation of social media. Learn more about Broadband Breakfast.

Antitrust

Key Republican: Anticompetitive Practices of Big Tech Present a Threat to Innovation

Rep. Ken Buck said tech companies’ practices are anticompetitive and threaten innovation, free speech and national security.

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Screenshot of Rep. Ken Buck from the Heritage Foundation webcast

WASHINGTON, January 13, 2023 — Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., argued on Wednesday that the anticompetitive practices of large tech companies present a threat to innovation, free speech and national security — and that even Republicans who are traditionally wary of antitrust legislation should view it as a key tool for curbing Big Tech’s power.

“I’m a free market person — I apply that principle to just about everywhere — but if you don’t have a market, you can’t have a free market,” Buck said at a Heritage Foundation event. “And when Google controls 94 percent of the online searches in this country, you don’t have a free market.”

Buck said that it was the responsibility of Congress to actively shape antitrust law, rather than “leaving it up to the courts to create something over the next 30 years.”

Among the several anti-Big Tech bills that have been proposed, Buck highlighted as his priority legislation that would prevent certain companies from acting as both buyers and sellers in digital advertising markets.

The bill applies to companies that generate more than $20 billion in digital ad revenues — specifically targeting Google and Facebook — and has so far received bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate.

Tech companies have spent millions of dollars lobbying against proposed antitrust bills, making it politically precarious for some members of Congress to support them, Buck said. Still, he urged his colleagues to consider the harms allegedly caused by social media platforms.

“We know that Instagram recognized that there was body shaming going on, there was depression among teenage girls, there was a higher suicide rate among teenage girls, and they doubled down,” Buck said. “They didn’t just say, ‘We’ve got to deal with this issue’ — they decided they were going to start marketing to a younger group.”

More competition in the market could give teens and parents access to better alternatives, Buck said, but the power held by the largest platforms makes it nearly impossible for competitors to emerge.

Rep. Buck linked free speech issues for tech industry to antitrust

“How do you have free speech, how do you have competition in the marketplace when you’ve got four companies that are so big that they can wipe out any kind of competitor?” he asked.

Buck has long been a critic of Big Tech, and introduced legislation to ban the TikTok app from U.S. government devices more than a year before similar legislation was passed as part of the bipartisan spending bill in December. This decision had nothing to do with fear of TikTok as a competitor to U.S. companies, he said.

“TikTok is dangerous, not because of its competition in the marketplace — I think it’s healthy in that sense; if Microsoft or some company had bought it, I’d be all in favor of that kind of competition for Facebook — but the bottom line is [that] how it’s being used by an adversary is dangerous and concerning.”

Although the TikTok ban won broad Republican support, alongside a variety of proposals to target tech companies’ privacy or content moderation practices, many antitrust bills have been less popular.

Buck has been open about his struggles in convincing other Republicans to pursue antitrust action, telling The Washington Post in March that “the antitrust bills that we are currently considering will not move forward under Republican leadership, and that’s been a very clear signal that has been sent.”

And now that the House is under Republican control, several experts have predicted that antitrust legislation is unlikely to move forward any time soon.

In an op-ed published Wednesday, President Joe Biden called on members of Congress to overcome partisan disagreements and keep tech companies in check by passing digital privacy, antitrust and content moderation legislation.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, responded to Biden’s comments in a statement that agreed with the need for privacy and content moderation action but did not mention antitrust.

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Antitrust

‘Time is Now’ for Separate Big Tech Regulatory Agency, Public Interest Group Says

‘We need to recognize that absolutely the time is now. It is neither too soon nor too late.’

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Photo of Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge

WASHINGTON, June 21, 2022 – Public Knowledge, non-profit public interest group, further advocated Thursday support for the Digital Platform Commission Act introduced in the Senate in May that would create a new federal agency designed to regulate digital platforms on an ongoing basis.

“We need to recognize that absolutely the time is now. It is neither too soon nor too late,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge.

The DPCA, introduced by Senator Michael Bennet, D-CO., and Representative Peter Welch, D-VT., would, if adopted, create a new federal agency designed to “provide comprehensive, sector-specific regulation of digital platforms to protect consumers, promote competition, and defend the public interest.”

The independent body would conduct hearings, research and investigations all while promoting competition and establishing rules with appropriate penalties.

Public Knowledge primarily focuses on competition in the digital marketplace. It champions for open internet and has openly advocated for antitrust legislation that would limit Big Tech action in favor of fair competition in the digital marketspace.

Feld published a book in 2019 titled, “The Case for the Digital Platform Act: Breakups, Starfish Problems and Tech Regulation.” In it, Feld explains the need for a separate government agency to regulate digital platforms.

Digital regulation is new but has rapidly become critical to the economy, continued Feld. As such, it is necessary for the government to create a completely new agency in order to provide the proper oversight.

In the past, Congress empowered independent bodies with effective tools and expert teams when it lacked expertise to oversee complex sectors of the economy but there is no such body for digital platforms, said Feld.

“The reality is that [Congress] can’t keep up,” said Welch. This comes at a time when antitrust action continues to pile up in Congress, sparking debate across all sides of the issue.

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Antitrust

FTC Commissioner Concerned About Antitrust Impact on Already Rising Consumer Prices

Noah Phillips said Tuesday he wants the commission to think about the impact of antitrust rules on rising prices.

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Screenshot of Federal Trade Commissioner Noah Phillips

WASHINGTON, May 17, 2022 – Rising inflation should be a primary concern for the Federal Trade Commission when considering antitrust regulations on Big Tech, said Commissioner Noah Phillips Tuesday.

When considering laws, “the important thing is what impact it has on the consumer,” said Phillips. “We need to continue to guard like a hawk against conduct and against laws that have the effect of raising prices for consumers.”

Current record highs in the inflation rate, which means money is becoming less valuable as products become more expensive, has meant Washington must become sensitive to further price increases that could come out of such antitrust legislation, the commissioner said.

Phillips did not comment on how such movies would mean higher prices, but that signals, such as theHouse Judiciary Committee’s antitrust report two years ago, that reign in Big Tech companies and bring back enforcement of laws could mean higher prices. He raised concerns that recent policies are prohibiting competition rather than facilitating it.

This follows recent concerns that the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, currently awaiting Senate floor consideration, will inhibit America’s global competitiveness by weakening major American companies, thus impairing the American economy. That legislation would prohibit platform owners from giving preference to their products against third-party products.

This act is one of many currently under consideration at Congress, including Ending Platform Monopolies Act and Platform Competition and Opportunity Act.

Small businesses have worried that by enacting some legislation targeting Big Tech, they would be impacted because they rely on such platforms for success.

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