Last week, an in-depth report by Reuters exposed swathes of documents that unveiled Amazon’s systematic tactic of making knock-off products and rigging search results in India—practices the shopping giant has denied engaging in. Now, five members belonging to the US House of Judiciary Committee wrote a letter addressed to the company’s CEO, Andy Jassy, on Sunday 17 October 2021. The letter by the lawmakers accuses Amazon’s top executives, including the company’s founder Jeff Bezos, of lying or, at the very least, misleading Congress on its business practices.
The letter goes even further to suggest its consideration of “a referral of this matter to the Department of Justice for criminal investigation is appropriate,” citing Reuters’ “credible reporting” that “directly contradicts the sworn testimony and representations of Amazon’s top executives—including former CEO Jeffrey Bezos.” The lawmaker’s letter, reviewed by Reuters, continued, “At best, this reporting confirms that Amazon’s representatives misled the Committee. At worst, it demonstrates that they have lied to Congress in possible violation of federal criminal law.”
Reuters’ report detailed thousands of internal Amazon documents that clearly showed the company is aware of what goes on behind the scenes, whereby knock-off products are created (through gathering data on individual sellers) and search engine results in India are shamelessly rigged so that its own products appear “in the first two or three… search results”—thereby boosting its production in the country. The scheme was allegedly reviewed by at least two of the company’s senior executives. The evidence cited and found by Reuters in this investigation contradicts the previous testimonies from the e-commerce giant.
In 2020, Bezos testified before the Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee stating that Amazon prohibits the gathering of data on other sellers for the company’s advantage. Another testimony came from Amazon’s associate general counsel Nate Sutton in a 2019 congressional hearing, where he denied the usage of data to create its own branded content and in response to valid questions about its ‘rigged’ algorithm stated, “The algorithms are optimised to predict what customers want to buy regardless of the seller.”
In response to the letter and accusations of allegedly lying, an Amazon spokesperson submitted a statement, “Amazon and its executives did not mislead the committee, and we have denied and sought to correct the record on the inaccurate media articles in question.” It continued, “As we have previously stated, we have an internal policy, which goes beyond that of any other retailer’s policy that we’re aware of, that prohibits the use of individual seller data to develop Amazon private label products. We investigate any allegations that this policy may have been violated and take appropriate action.”
The letter from the US Judiciary Committee offers CEO Jassy a “final opportunity” to present articles of evidence that verify Amazon’s testimonies while also requesting access to the documents unveiled in Reuters’ in-depth report. A sworn response must also be made by the CEO by 1 November 2021, “We strongly encourage you to make use of this opportunity to correct the record and provide the Committee with sworn, truthful and accurate responses to this request as we consider whether a referral of this matter to the Department of Justice for criminal investigation is appropriate,” the letter explains.
If you’ve been following our reporting on Amazon for any length of time, you’d be mistaken for thinking we give Amazon a hard time. But it’s the depressing reality. In fact, I’d love to report on anything good this multi-national, multi-billion-dollar company has brought to the world, yet sadly, the bad news just keeps on coming. From racial discrimination and sexual harassment allegations to continuously mistreating staff, paying them low wages and even using algorithms to fire them, Amazon really doesn’t have a good track record. And now, thanks to a recent investigation conducted by Reuters, we can add copying other products and rigging search results to promote its own brands to the list.
Amazon has been repeatedly accused of knocking off products it sells on its website and of exploiting its wealth of internal data to promote its own merchandise at the expense of other sellers. To this day, the company has, of course, denied all allegations. However, a recent report by Reuters—which involved examining the thousands of internal documents, such as emails, strategy papers and business plans—suggests otherwise.
Reuters found that the company has run a systematic campaign of creating knockoffs and manipulating the search results of customers to boost its own product lines in India—one of the company’s largest growth markets. According to the report, the documents reveal how Amazon’s private brands in India have secretly exploited the data from Amazon.in to copy products sold by other companies—subsequently offering them on Amazon’s own platform. The employees also stoked sales of Amazon private-brand products by rigging Amazon’s search results so that the company’s products would appear, as one 2016 strategy report for India put it, “in the first 2 or three […] search results” when customers were shopping on Amazon.in.
The multi-national retailer has had a rocky history of allegations, in particular after employees who have worked on private-brand products have accused the company of exploiting proprietary data from individual sellers to launch competing products and manipulating search results to increase the sale of the company’s goods. However, the recent findings, published by the Reuters investigation team on 13 October 2021, provides evidence for the first time that the company is actively manipulating search results in favour of its own products—and that high-level executives were in on the act, or at least told about it.
As the document states, two executives reviewed the India strategy—senior vice presidents Diego Piacentini, who has since left the company, and Russell Grandinetti, who runs Amazon’s international consumer business. The findings indicate this was true for India, however, questions can be made as to whether this rigging of search results is also happening in other nations across the globe.
In response to the findings made by Reuters using the documents published, Amazon replied: “As Reuters hasn’t shared the documents or their provenance with us, we are unable to confirm the veracity or otherwise of the information and claims as stated. We believe these claims are factually incorrect and unsubstantiated.” It did not elaborate or address the questions raised by Reuters about the evidence in the documents presented in clear sight—instead, it deflected the allegations in a dismissive manner as quickly as they arrived. And considering the company’s not-so-perfect track record, I’m betting more of the same cheatery will soon be found in other countries.