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Jeff Bezos cannot promise that Amazon employees will not have access to data from independent sellers

At Wednesday’s antitrust hearing, Amazon and its CEO Jeff Bezos came under fire from lawmakers over the company’s alleged use of third-party vendor data in developing its own products.

Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon employees have access to sales data from independent sellers in its market to help the company develop competitive products for its private label. Amazon has a policy that bans the practice, but legislators like Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) focused on the company’s enforcement of that policy.

“Let me ask you, Mr. Bezos, does Amazon ever have access to and use seller information when making business decisions?” Jayapal asked.

Bezos emphasized the company policy that forbids the practice, but said, “I cannot guarantee that that policy has never been violated.” He continued, “We will continue to investigate that very carefully. I’m still not satisfied that we got to the bottom of it and we’ll keep looking at it. It’s not as easy as you might think because some of the sources in the article are anonymous. ‘

Before the logThe report came out, Amazon had told Congress that it doesn’t have access to sales data to guide the launch of its own products. “Our motive is to help the seller succeed because we rely on them,” said Nate Sutton, Amazon general adviser, said at a hearing last July. “They have many options. So we apply the same criteria to both and we don’t use their individual data when making decisions to launch private brands. ”

Antitrust activists have long been concerned about Amazon’s power over independent sellers on its platform and how it could use that power to launch competitive products. In a pivotal 2017 law review articleAntitrust scientist Lina Khan described it as a classic example of infrastructure discrimination, writing, “Amazon itself effectively controls the infrastructure of the Internet economy.”

Still, Jayapal cited documents obtained and interviews conducted during the commission’s investigation that cast doubt on Amazon’s ability to enforce its policy against seller data interception. “The committee has interviewed employees who say that these breaches are mostly common,” said Jayapal.

Collection of aggregated data is permitted under Amazon policy, but not under specific seller data. However, Jayapal argued that aggregated data could still provide Amazon with “detailed data” on specific product categories.

“So you can set the rules of the game for your competitors, but not for yourself,” said Jayapal.

Bezos also caught fire by Rep. Lucy McBath (D-GA) on Amazon’s ability to “systematically block sellers” from selling specific products, citing the direct testimony of a seller who thought she was blocked.

“I don’t think that’s systematic,” said Bezos. “Third-party sellers are generally doing great on Amazon.”