The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and 17 states recently filed a lawsuit against Amazon, accusing the retail giant of abusing its market power to hinder competition. However, legal experts believe that the lawsuit will face significant obstacles in court, raising questions about the scope of U.S. antitrust law and the agency’s ability to prevail.
The FTC’s legal challenge contends that Amazon has favored its own products unfairly and imposed punitive measures on merchants seeking to offer lower prices on rival platforms. To succeed in this case, the FTC must demonstrate not only that Amazon is a dominant market player but also that it has engaged in illegal actions to attain or maintain its dominance. Additionally, the agency needs to define and substantiate the relevant markets, a crucial threshold issue.
David Balto, an antitrust lawyer and former policy director at the FTC, compared the FTC’s uphill battle to climbing Washington state’s Mt. Rainier in tennis shoes, emphasizing the formidable challenge it faces.
Amazon will have the opportunity to present pro-competitive justifications for its alleged conduct as part of the case. Diane Hazel, an antitrust lawyer at Foley & Lardner, noted that Amazon must establish that its reasons are “legitimate” to counter the FTC’s claims.
Antitrust scholar Tom Cotter from the University of Minnesota Law School pointed out that Amazon’s argument is likely to revolve around providing consumers with access to a wide range of affordable goods quickly, emphasizing its role in fostering competition and innovation in the retail industry.
David Zapolsky, Amazon’s general counsel, stated that the company’s challenged policies have promoted competition and innovation within the retail sector. He argued that the FTC’s complaint disregards the existence of everyday retail competition.
FTC Chair Lina Khan asserted that Amazon had employed “punitive and coercive tactics” to maintain an unlawful monopoly.
This lawsuit by the FTC is broader than a series of private consumer cases filed against Amazon in recent years, all of which are pending in the same U.S. federal court. These private antitrust cases offer insight into the legal arguments Amazon may use to challenge the FTC’s lawsuit.
In these private cases, Amazon’s legal team contended that no court had ever condemned a business practice that aimed to offer low prices to consumers in a retail store. Amazon is also facing claims from a separate private civil lawsuit accusing the company of stifling competition in shipping and fulfillment services.
While legal experts recognize the FTC’s concerns, they note that U.S. judges tend to be cautious about using antitrust law to penalize low-pricing behavior. Distinguishing between “good low pricing” due to market competition and “bad low pricing” that facilitates market power acquisition can be challenging.
The outcome of the FTC’s lawsuit against Amazon will be closely watched as it tests the boundaries of U.S. antitrust law and could have far-reaching implications for competition in the e-commerce sector.