Technology

Amazon to Meet Regulators as U.S. Considers Possible Antitrust Suit


Amazon is scheduled to meet with members of the Federal Trade Commission next week to discuss an antitrust lawsuit that the agency may be preparing to file to challenge the power of the retailer’s sprawling business, according to a person with knowledge of the plans.

The meetings are set to be held with Lina Khan, the F.T.C. chair, and Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and Alvaro Bedoya, who are F.T.C. commissioners, said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussions are confidential.

The scheduled meetings signal that the F.T.C. is nearing a decision on whether to move forward with a lawsuit arguing that Amazon has violated antimonopoly laws. Such discussions are sometimes known as “last rites” meetings, after the prayers some Christians receive on their deathbed. The conversations, which are usually one of the final steps before the agency’s commissioners vote on whether to file a lawsuit, give the company a chance to make its case.

If the F.T.C. moves ahead with a lawsuit, it would be one of the most significant challenges to Amazon’s business in the company’s nearly 30-year history. As a $1.4 trillion behemoth, Amazon has turned into a major force in the economy. It now owns not just its trademark online store, but the movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the primary care practice One Medical and the high-end grocery chain Whole Foods. It is also becoming the world’s largest provider of cloud computing services.

The F.T.C. has investigated Amazon’s business for years. The company’s critics and competitors have argued that the once-upstart online bookstore has used its power as one of the world’s largest online retailers to squeeze the merchants that use its platform to sell their wares.

U.S. officials have grown increasingly concerned about the power and reach of giant tech companies like Amazon, Google and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram. The Justice Department has filed multiple antitrust lawsuits against Google, with one scheduled to go to trial next month. The F.T.C. has also sued Meta over accusations that it snuffed out young competitors by buying Instagram and WhatsApp.

Some of those efforts have stumbled in the courts. Federal judges declined this year to stop Meta from acquiring a virtual reality start-up and Microsoft from buying video game powerhouse Activision Blizzard, dooming F.T.C. challenges to both deals. The Justice Department also lost a challenge to an acquisition by UnitedHealth Group of a health tech company.

In June, the F.T.C. sued Amazon in a separate case that accused the company of tricking users into subscribing to its Prime fast-shipping membership program and then making it difficult for them to cancel.

Amazon has also faced scrutiny from states and regulators in other countries. The District of Columbia attorney general filed a lawsuit against the company in 2021, arguing that it had used unfair pricing policies against merchants on its site. The lawsuit was thrown out by a judge. California filed a similar lawsuit last year that has been moving forward. In December, Amazon also reached a deal to end a European Union antitrust investigation by agreeing to change some of its practices.

Ms. Khan has been one of Amazon’s most prominent critics. While a law student at Yale, she argued that Amazon’s growth represented a failure of American antitrust laws, which she said had become myopically focused on consumer prices as a measure of whether businesses were violating the law. Amazon’s prices were often low, she wrote in a widely read 2017 paper, but that analysis failed to account for other ways it could bully players across the economy.

The paper made Ms. Khan famous. Its success supercharged a debate in Washington about the power of the tech giants. In 2019, federal antitrust regulators decided to investigate some of the companies. In keeping with a longstanding practice of dividing responsibilities, the Justice Department agreed to look at Google and Apple while the F.T.C. examined Facebook and Amazon.

President Biden named Ms. Khan to oversee the F.T.C. — giving her control of the Amazon investigation — roughly two years later.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.