Over 100 years ago, Congress responded to railroad and oil monopolies’ stranglehold on the economy by passing the United States’ first-ever antitrust laws. When those reforms weren’t enough, Congress created the Federal Trade Commission to protect consumers and small businesses from predation. Today, unchecked monopolies again threaten economic competition and our democratic institutions, so it’s no surprise that the FTC is bringing a historic antitrust suit against one of the biggest fish in the stream of commerce: Amazon.
Make no mistake: modern-day monopolies, particularly the Big Tech giants (Amazon, Apple, Alphabet, and Meta), are active threats to competition and consumers’ welfare. In 2020, the House Antitrust Subcommittee concluded an extensive investigation into Big Tech’s monopolistic harms by condemning Amazon’s monopoly power, which it used to mistreat sellers, bully retail partners, and ruin rivals’ businesses through the use of sellers’ data. The Subcommittee’s report found that, as both the operator of and participant in its marketplace, Amazon functions with “an inherent conflict of interest.”
The FTC’s lawsuit builds off those findings by targeting Amazon’s notorious practice of “self-preferencing,” in which the company gathers private data on what products users are purchasing, creates its own copies of those products, then lists its versions above any competitors on user searches. Moreover, by bullying sellers looking to discount their products on other online marketplaces, Amazon has forced consumers to fork over more money than what they would have in a truly-competitive environment.
But perhaps the best evidence of Amazon’s illegal monopoly power is how hard the company has worked for years to squash any investigation into its actions. For decades, Amazon has relied on the classic ‘revolving door’ strategy of poaching former FTC officials to become its lobbyists, lawyers, and senior executives. This way, the company can use their institutional knowledge to fight the agency and criticize strong enforcement actions. These “revolvers” defend the business practices which their former FTC colleagues argue push small businesses past their breaking points. They also can help guide Amazon’s prodigious lobbying efforts, which reached a corporate record in 2022 amidst an industry wide spending spree in which “the top tech companies spent nearly $70 million on lobbying in 2022, outstripping other industries including pharmaceuticals and oil and gas.”
Amazon’s in-house legal and policy shops are absolutely stacked full of ex-FTC officials and staffers. In less than two years, Amazon absorbed more than 28 years of FTC expertise with just three corporate counsel hires: ex-FTC officials Amy Posner, Elisa Kantor Perlman and Andi Arias. The company also hired former FTC antitrust economist Joseph Breedlove as its principal economist for litigation and regulatory matters (read: the guy we’re going to call as an expert witness to say you shouldn’t break us up) in 2017.
It goes further than that. Last year, Amazon hired former Senate Judiciary Committee staffer Judd Smith as a lobbyist after he previously helped craft legislation to rein in the company and other Big Tech giants. Amazon also contributed more than $1 million to the “Competitiveness Coalition,” a Big Tech front group led by former Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA). The coalition counts a number of right-wing, anti-regulatory groups among its members, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a notorious purveyor of climate denialism, and National Taxpayers Union, an anti-tax group regularly gifted op-ed space in Fox News and the National Review.
This goes to show the lengths to which Amazon will go to avoid oversight from any government authority. True, the FTC has finally filed suit against Amazon, and that is a good thing. But Amazon, throughout their pursuance of ever growing monopoly power, hired their team of revolvers precisely for this moment. These ex-officials bring along institutional knowledge that will inform Amazon’s legal defense. They will likely know the types of legal arguments the FTC will rely on, how the FTC conducted its pretrial investigations, and the personalities of major players in the case.
This knowledge is invaluable to Amazon. It’s like hiring the assistant coach of an opposing team and gaining access to their playbook — you know what’s coming before it happens and you can prepare accordingly. Not only that, but this stream of revolvers makes it incredibly difficult to know the dedication of some regulators towards enforcing the law against corporate behemoths. How is the public expected to trust its federal regulators to protect them from monopoly power when a large swath of its workforce might be waiting for a monopoly to hire them? (Of course, that’s why we need both better pay for public servants as well as stricter restrictions on public servants revolving out to the corporations they were supposedly regulating.)
While spineless revolvers make a killing defending Amazon, the actual people and businesses affected by their strong arming tactics are applauding the FTC’s suit. Following the FTC’s filing, sellers praised the Agency on Amazon’s Seller Central forum, calling it “long overdue” and Amazon’s model as a “race to the bottom.” One commenter even wrote they will be applying to the FTC once Amazon’s practices force them off the platform. This is the type of revolving we may be able to support. When the FTC is staffed with people who care more about reigning in monopolies than receiving hefty paychecks from them in the future (e.g., Chair Lina Khan), we get cases that actually protect consumers and small businesses.
The FTC’s suit against Amazon signals that the federal government will no longer stand by as monopolies hollow-out the economy and corrupt the inner-workings of our democracy, but the revolvers will make every step difficult. They will be in the corporate offices and federal courtrooms advising Amazon on how best to undermine their former employer’s legal standing. They will be in the media, claiming to be objective as a former regulator, while running cover for Amazon’s shady practices that the business press will gobble up. The prevalence of these revolvers makes it difficult for current regulators to succeed while simultaneously undermining public trust in a government that should work for people, not corporations. Former civil servants who put cash from Amazon over the regulatory mission to which they had once been committed are turncoats to the public good. They should be scorned by the public and ignored by government officials and media alike.
Andrea Beaty is Research Director at the Revolving Door Project, focusing on anti-monopoly, executive branch ethics and housing policy. KJ Boyle is a research intern with the Revolving Door Project. Max Moran is a Fellow at the Revolving Door Project. The Revolving Door Project scrutinizes executive branch appointees to ensure they use their office to serve the broad public interest, rather than to entrench corporate power or seek personal advancement.