Amazon referred to US attorney general over ‘potentially criminal conduct’

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Members of the Democratic-controlled House judiciary committee have referred Amazon to the Department of Justice, alleging “potentially criminal conduct” by the company and some of its senior executives.

In a letter to the attorney general, Merrick Garland, lawmakers claim that Amazon had engaged in a “pattern and practice of misleading conduct that suggests” it was acting to influence the committee’s investigation into online market competition.

Related: A historic antitrust hearing in Congress has put big tech on notice | Roger McNamee

“Amazon repeatedly endeavored to thwart the committee’s efforts to uncover the truth about Amazon’s business practices,” the congressional letter dated 9 March says.

“We have no choice but to refer this matter to the Department of Justice to investigate whether Amazon and its executives obstructed Congress in violation of applicable federal law,” it added.

Amazon said in a statement that “there’s no factual basis” for the committee’s move and that it had cooperated with the investigation.

The existence of the letter, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, follows a warning from the committee in October that accused executives with the Seattle online retailing and cloud storage giant of either misleading Congress or possibly lying to it about Amazon’s business practices.

A Reuters investigation last year cited documents that showed that Amazon had conducted a systematic campaign of copying products and rigging search results in India to boost sales of its own brands, or private-label brands – practices that Amazon denies.

The congressional committee later claimed that news coverage “directly contradicts the testimony of Amazon’s executives including former chief executive Jeffrey Bezos”. The company denied the allegations, responding that it “did not mislead the committee” and had “sought to correct the record on the inaccurate media articles in question”.

But lawmakers claim the company had declined opportunities to demonstrate with evidence that it had made accurate and complete representations to the committee.

The request to the justice department increases tension between political representatives and big tech, which is facing a number of investigations as well as calls for curbs to their market power, a virtual mirror of anti-trust suit faced by Microsoft in the 1990s.

Two years ago, the same House antitrust subcommittee took issue with Amazon’s claims that its share of total US retail shopping is the most relevant way to understand its size – not its e-commerce dominance that accounts for about 39% of products purchased online.

“Amazon functions as a gatekeeper for e-commerce,” the report said, and detailed what it claimed was how Amazon wields its size and platform to thwart competition.

Amazon responded that “all large organizations attract the attention of regulators, and we welcome that scrutiny. But large companies are not dominant by definition, and the presumption that success can only be the result of anti-competitive behavior is simply wrong.”

The latest escalation comes after committee members requested that Amazon’s chief executive, Andy Jassy, provide “exculpatory evidence” surrounding its private-label business practices. The company claimed that evidence from its own investigation into the issue was protected by attorney-client privilege.

Amazon, the committee responded, “has refused to turn over business documents or communications” and “it appears to have done so to conceal the truth about its use of third-party sellers’ data to advantage its private-label business and its preferencing of private-label products in search results.”