The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has revamped its antitrust probe of Amazon.com Inc., shaking up the investigative team, re-interviewing potential witnesses and asking questions about the company’s recent acquisition of MGM Studios, three people familiar with the probe said.
The agency has been looking at Amazon since 2019 over antitrust concerns with its retail business and cloud computing services. Lina Khan, who became chair of the agency last year, had made a name for herself with a groundbreaking legal paper into Amazon’s potential antitrust violations and has taken a personal interest in the probe.
She’s assigned the case to John Newman, an antitrust professor and former Justice Department prosecutor, who joined the FTC as a deputy director of competition in December and has reorganized the team probing Amazon since taking it over, according to the people, who asked not to be identified discussing non-public information about the situation.
The agency declined to comment on the re-organization. Amazon didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The FTC’s focus under Trump
During the administration of President Donald Trump, the FTC opted to prioritize an antitrust investigation into Facebook and assigned only two lawyers to the Amazon one, two of the people said.
Before joining the FTC from Columbia Law School, Khan worked as a staffer for the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee that had spent 16 months investigating Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Amazon, Apple Inc. and Meta Platforms Inc. Khan focused on the Google section of what eventually became the panel’s 449-page report, while an FTC staffer detailed to the committee led the Amazon portion.
The panel’s report became public in October 2020, but by last summer the FTC investigation hadn’t broken any new ground from what had been outlined in the congressional report, two of the people said.
After taking over the agency, Khan helped draft some lines of questioning for investigators, one of the people said. Since then, FTC lawyers have homed in on aspects of the probe involving Amazon Web Services, the company’s lucrative cloud computing business, and more recently the $8.45 billion MGM acquisition.
Amazon said in March it closed its acquisition of the movie studio when the FTC’s review of the deal expired without a challenge.
The FTC declined to comment directly on the deal at the time but issued a statement that it “does not approve transactions and may challenge a deal at any time if it determines that it violates the law.”
FTC lawyers have been asking questions about the MGM deal’s impact on the company’s video streaming service, Amazon Prime, two of the people said.
Amazon has sought to sideline Khan, arguing that her past work should preclude her from involvement in any FTC cases against the company. A similar recusal push by Facebook was rejected by the agency and a federal judge overseeing the FTC’s suit against the company.
The FTC isn’t the only regulator focused on Amazon. In response to an antitrust price-fixing investigation by the Washington state attorney general, the company agreed to pay a $2.25 million fine in January and shutter a program in which it agreed on pricing with third-party sellers, rather than compete with them.
Karl Racine, the attorney general for the District of Columbia, sued Amazon last year, alleging the online retailer encourages higher-than-necessary consumer prices through policies that guarantee the tech giant a minimum profit on each item sold, while discouraging merchants on the site from offering their products at lower prices elsewhere.
A Superior Court judge dismissed the suit in March, but DC is appealing with support from the Biden administration. European regulators are also probing how the ecommerce giant treats sellers on its platform.
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