Amazon is gearing up to defend itself against a mushrooming battle over the company's alleged anticompetitive business practices, in arenas spanning Congress, federal agencies and state government.
The commerce giant is expanding its legal team, hiring former federal prosecutors and regulators to fill roles that include defending the company against allegations that it unfairly dominates markets. The company has tweaked its public messaging to downplay its role as the world's largest online retailer. It has also tried to boost its image in Washington, D.C., spending more on federal lobbying in 2020 than ever before.
Together, those moves can be read as Amazon erecting a shield against stepped-up antitrust scrutiny, said University of Washington tech historian Margaret O'Mara.
Amazon is "deploying their considerable resources and readying for what's clearly a very different relationship with Washington (D.C.) than tech has usually enjoyed," O'Mara said.
Amazon has objected to criticisms that it has grown too large. The company operates "a diverse range of businesses" in an "extraordinarily competitive" global retail marketplace, company spokesperson Dan Perlet said in a statement.
President Joe Biden has taken a more strident tone on issues of corporate power than recent Democratic presidents. He issued a statement many interpreted as backing the union drive of Amazon workers in Bessemer, Ala. And he has installed prominent Big Tech critics in key positions within federal agencies, signaling the administration could attempt to rein in Amazon's economic sway.
The company is facing simultaneous challenges in both chambers of Congress, as well as from states. Legislation that would reform some aspects of antitrust enforcement is working its way through the Senate; House antitrust subcommittee members are expected to introduce their own bills in coming months.
Behind the scenes, Amazon has filled its ranks with at least 10 former federal antitrust attorneys and economists, most of whom previously worked in federal government for at least a decade, according to a review of LinkedIn profiles and previous reporting from nonprofit watchdog group The Revolving Door Project.
Six have been with the company since at least 2019, including Nate Sutton, who joined Amazon's regulatory law team in 2016 after 10 years as a trial attorney in the Department of Justice (DOJ) antitrust division. Lawmakers talked briefly of launching an investigation into Sutton last year, after his congressional testimony about Amazon's business practices appeared to contradict findings in last year's House antitrust committee report detailing what it said were anticompetitive business practices by Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook.
The pace of Amazon's hires accelerated as federal scrutiny of Amazon's business practices intensified: The company made five high-profile hires with a combined 44 years of experience at the DOJ and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in a four-month period last year.