What’s The True Cost of Amazon’s Low Prices? The FTC and Congress Have Antitrust Concerns

This story is part of a Recode series about Big Tech and antitrust. Over the next few weeks, we’ll cover what’s happening with Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.

On the heels of yet another year of record sales, Amazon is dealing with a couple of unwelcome updates in the new year. The Senate Judiciary Committee has announced it will soon be marking up the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, an antitrust bill targeting Amazon and other Big Tech companies. This follows reports that the Federal Trade Commission is ramping up its years-long antitrust investigation into Amazon’s cloud computing arm, Amazon Web Services, or AWS.

It’s clearer now than ever that Amazon, which was allowed to grow mostly unhindered for more than two decades, is caught in the middle of an international effort to check Big Tech’s power.

The Senate bill, one of several bipartisan antitrust bills in Congress, would prohibit Amazon from giving its products preferential treatment, among other things. It’s the bill that would affect the company the most, and the one it has been fighting hardest against. Meanwhile, the renewed scrutiny from the FTC about alleged anti-competitive behavior from AWS, which represents a significant and largely invisible source of Amazon’s profits, could threaten Amazon’s long-term dominance in a number of industries.

Just because a company is successful and dominates a market (or even several markets) doesn’t mean it’s violating any antitrust laws. But Amazon’s critics say it illegally uses its power to harm competition and consumers, particularly with its Marketplace, where outside, or third-party, businesses can sell their products to Amazon customers alongside Amazon’s own wares.

Amazon has been accused of copying popular products to sell under its own labels, using non-public seller data to inform its own decisions, and forcing sellers into agreements that essentially prohibit them from offering lower prices elsewhere. Amazon denies some of these allegations and says other actions are simply meant to provide the services its customers want at the best price.

Some of these complaints have been around a while, but 2022 may be the year that Amazon faces meaningful and real consequences for them. There are still caveats. State attorneys general are rumored to be looking into some of Amazon’s business practices, but only one has filed a lawsuit so far.

The FTC is still waiting for the confirmation of a fifth Democratic commissioner who would break up the deadlock of two Republican and two Democratic commissioners. And while antitrust bills are making progress in Congress, Democratic lawmakers currently seem focused on other initiatives ahead of the midterm elections — elections that could give Republicans a majority in one or both houses of Congress.

Amazon isn’t the only Big Tech company that’s been targeted, but it might have more reason than anyone else to worry about the FTC in particular. One of two federal agencies that enforce antitrust laws, the FTC is now run by Lina Khan, who basically built her career on research surrounding her 2017 Yale Law Journal paper, “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox.”

The paper detailed how Amazon’s rise showed the flaws in antitrust laws and led to Khan becoming known as Amazon’s antitrust antagonist. Since her appointment to the FTC last June, it hasn’t seemed like the question is whether the agency will take on Amazon, but rather when and how. Amazon, meanwhile, has asked that Khan recuse herself from any antitrust matters involving the company.

Khan “is best suited to understand the various issues and problems with Amazon,” said Alex Harman, a competition policy advocate at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group. “And we are very excited that she will be able to bring a significant action against them.”

Khan has a lot to choose from. It’s hard to overstate Amazon’s role in the economy, or how many roles it has. It’s a technology company. It’s a delivery service. It’s an advertising platform. It powers about a third of the internet. It’s a movie studio and a streaming service. It’s a health care provider. It’s a surveillance machine and a data harvester. It’s one of the largest employers in the world and one of the most valuable companies. Also, it sells books.

In response to questions about whether its size and market share were too big in too many sectors, Amazon told Recode it faces “intense competition” in all of its lines of business. It says its expansion is part of a long-running strategy to make “big bets over the long term to reinvent the customer experience.”

Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project, an anti-monopoly advocacy group, sees it differently: “Amazon leverages its power in one space to take over a new space, which is core to their business practice. They have the ability to combine the competitive advantages of different aspects of their business to take over new sectors of the economy.”

While the FTC, for now, seems interested in AWS (and Amazon’s attempt to buy MGM), most of the antitrust attention we’ve seen elsewhere is focused on Amazon’s retail business and how it treats the businesses that sell products through its Marketplace platform. Critics say Amazon uses its power to give its own wares an unfair advantage over third-party sellers, and effectively forces them to pay for extra services and make agreements that could inflate prices everywhere.

“That’s where there’s a lot of obvious harms, and where you have businesses who are unhappy with how they’re being treated,” Miller said.

Consumers may be paying more and missing out on new products, companies, and innovations that a more competitive retail space would have produced. And that may be a violation of the antitrust laws we have now, or those to come.

How Amazon’s power might lead to higher prices

Many antitrust complaints about Amazon’s practices are based on its position as both a platform and a seller on that platform. This gives Amazon a great deal of power over the companies it’s competing against, as well as an incentive to favor its products over theirs. About 60 percent of Amazon’s online sales come through Marketplace.

This can be a mutually beneficial relationship. Marketplace’s sellers — currently more than 2 million of them — get access to Amazon’s huge customer base, and Amazon gets a vastly expanded selection that has helped make it the first and only website many online shoppers visit.

This model brings in hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue every year for Amazon, which now has an estimated 40 percent share of the e-commerce market in the United States. The company with the second-largest e-commerce market share, Walmart, has just 7 percent.

At the same time, Amazon likes to say it has but a small sliver — 1 percent — of a competitive global retail market. But that’s online and offline combined, and it includes many industries in which Amazon doesn’t sell anything at all. Amazon is also on track to edge out Walmart and become the most dominant retailer, online and off, in the United States as soon as this year.

No company has the kind of ecosystem Amazon built around its retail business beyond Marketplace. Amazon collects tons of data about its shoppers — data it uses to optimize its services and to fuel its burgeoning and increasingly lucrative advertising business.

Meanwhile, Amazon Prime and its fast free shipping has not only created an intensely loyal customer base but also compelled Amazon to build up its own shipping and logistics arm, Fulfillment by Amazon, to reduce its reliance on outside services and give it more control over its sellers. Many of Amazon’s rival retailers — namely, Walmart and Target — do some or all of these things to a lesser extent, but they’re just playing catch-up.

Smaller companies simply don’t have the scale or money to offer such services. Amazon, which has turned itself from a bookstore to an “everything store” to an everything platform, is in a class by itself.

“There are dynamics in digital that are fundamentally different,” Andrew Lipsman, principal analyst at eMarketer, told Recode. “Access to data is fundamentally different than we’ve ever had before. And all the other things that has enabled — all these digital businesses that Amazon has spun off — are underpinned by completely different economics than traditional retail economics.”

Amazon is happy to tell you how good it’s been for the small- and medium-sized businesses making money using its platform and how proposed antitrust actions could harm them. Others argue that Amazon makes even more money off of third-party sellers who have to play by Amazon’s rules because their businesses wouldn’t survive without the e-commerce giant and its customer base. And those rules, they say, aren’t always fair.

Last May, the attorney general of Washington, DC, Karl Racine, sued Amazon for antitrust violations over its treatment of Marketplace sellers. In September, he amended that lawsuit to include the wholesalers, or first-party sellers, from which Amazon buys products before selling them to its customers.

Racine told Recode that he started to wonder what the price of Amazon’s much-touted “customer obsession” was, especially after seeing accusations that Amazon copied popular products on its platform and then sold its own similar products for a lower price. (Amazon says it’s standard practice for retailers to use data about customers’ interests to help determine what to make for their own private labels.)

“I found that offensive,” Racine told Recode. “I felt like Amazon was just a copycat and burying a creative source. They were not focused only on the customer. They were also focused on their bottom line.”

The DC attorney general’s office investigated and found that “Amazon, the dominant player, seeks to maximize its profits at the expense of consumers, third-party sellers, and wholesalers,” Racine said. “It’s kept prices for goods artificially high, hampered competition, stifled innovation, and illegally tilted the playing field, all in its favor.”

Racine’s suit echoes some of the issues raised in other lawsuits and investigations as well as those identified in a recent report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit that advocates for locally owned businesses.

The big sticking point is that Amazon’s policies can effectively force other companies to give Amazon the lowest price for their goods. This is due to Amazon’s “fair pricing” policy, which says it can downgrade or stop sales of third-party sellers’ products if they’re priced “significantly higher” on Amazon than at other outlets.

Meanwhile, wholesalers have to agree to give Amazon a certain cut of their products’ sales. But Amazon also sets the prices of those products. If it reduces them to price match another outlet, the wholesaler may end up eating the difference and even losing money. That keeps wholesalers from selling their wares to anyone else for less.

Amazon sees all this as looking out for its customers and making sure they’re getting the lowest prices. But Racine and those who have filed similar lawsuits believe sellers and wholesalers are being stopped from selling their products for lower prices in other stores.

Because of this, competitors can’t offer lower prices to get an advantage over Amazon, and customers end up paying Amazon’s prices even if they don’t shop at Amazon — and paying more. Sellers and wholesalers can choose not to sell to Amazon, but few of them have the size and brand recognition needed to survive in a world where so many shoppers do most, if not all, of their online shopping on Amazon.

“That’s the power of brands: Nike is able to say, ‘You know what, Amazon? We don’t need you,’” Lipsman said. “The more commoditized your product is, the more likely you have to sell through Amazon, and you’re dependent on that channel.”

Amazon has filed a motion to dismiss the DC attorney general’s lawsuit, arguing that it’s simply making sure its customers are getting the lowest prices. The policies don’t force sellers to offer the lowest price on Amazon, Amazon says; they simply discourage them from offering higher prices on Amazon than they do elsewhere. But this hasn’t always been the case.

Just a few years ago, Amazon had a price parity policy, which more explicitly said sellers couldn’t offer lower prices anywhere else. Amazon ended this practice in Europe years ago amid scrutiny there, and then did the same thing in the United States in 2019. Racine says the fair pricing policy that replaced it serves the same function and is similarly anti-competitive.

How Amazon uses its power over sellers to squeeze them for money and data

Even though one of Amazon’s selling points is its low prices, critics say those aren’t necessarily the lowest prices possible, in part due to the increasing costs to sell on Marketplace. Amazon charges sellers a referral fee, typically 15 percent, for items sold. Then it piles on optional services that many sellers feel compelled to buy if they want their businesses to survive, cutting into their margins and forcing some to raise their prices to maintain a profit.

Fulfillment by Amazon, or FBA, is one example of this. Amazon doesn’t require that its sellers use its fulfillment and shipping service, but doing so makes them eligible for Prime, and it’s exceedingly difficult to qualify for Prime if they don’t.

That recognizable Prime badge is important. There’s a higher likelihood that Amazon’s customers will buy Prime products, because the shipping is free for Prime members and because Amazon gives preference to Prime items when it assigns what’s known as the “Buy Box.” When multiple sellers offer the same product, the Buy Box winner is added to carts when customers click “buy.” More than 80 percent of an item’s sales go to the Buy Box winner, so sellers are very motivated to do everything possible to get it. That may include using FBA even if it costs them more than shipping items themselves.

This practice has already gotten Amazon into trouble abroad. In December, Italy’s antitrust regulators fined Amazon about $1.3 billion for giving sellers who use FBA benefits over those who don’t. Amazon says it’s planning to appeal the decision, but more trouble could be on the way: The company is facing a similar investigation from the European Union’s European Commission, and India is also investigating Amazon for violating its antitrust laws.

Sellers have also complained about ads, which give their items better placement in search results. Reports say that Amazon has increased the number of ads, upping its revenue and pushing organic results down even further — which, in turn, compels sellers to buy ads to regain the prominent placement they used to get for free. Amazon told Recode that sellers wouldn’t use FBA or buy ads if those services didn’t add value or come at the best price, as they can always use other fulfillment services and buy ads elsewhere.

But it’s not just fees that Amazon gets from its sellers. Critics say the company uses data it collects from third-party sellers to give itself a competitive advantage. This was the subject of a “statement of objections” from the European Union, and as the DC attorney general has made clear, Amazon is notorious for creating its own versions of popular products sold by third parties.

The company recently opened up some of its data to sellers, possibly in an effort to ward off some of this criticism, and says it prohibits the use of non-public data about individual sellers to develop its own products. But founder Jeff Bezos told Congress he couldn’t guarantee that policy has never been violated, and multiple press reports suggest that it has.

The company has also been accused of self-preferencing, or giving its products preferential treatment — and a competitive advantage — over those sold by third parties. This could take the form of giving its own products the Buy Box or prominent search rankings they didn’t earn. Amazon has total control over its platform, so the company can really do whatever it wants, and there isn’t much sellers can do about it.

Self-preferencing has become a catch-all term for many of Amazon’s alleged anti-competitive practices. It’s attracted the most attention from regulators so far. The company denies that it gives preference to its own items in search results and says the reports that it does are inaccurate. Many legislators aren’t buying that and have proposed bills forbidding self-preferencing, with Amazon specifically in mind.

How Amazon could be changed by new antitrust laws

Per its policies, the FTC has stayed mum on what, if anything, it’s investigating on Amazon. Congress, on the other hand, has been very public.

The House Judiciary Committee spent 16 months looking into competition and digital markets, focusing on Amazon as well as Apple, Google, and Facebook. Last year, a bipartisan and mostly bicameral group of lawmakers proposed a package of Big Tech-focused antitrust bills. The House’s bills made it through committee markup last June, but have yet to be put to a vote.

The American Innovation and Choice Online Act is the only Senate bill to be scheduled for markup so far. The House’s Ending Platform Monopolies Act, which still doesn’t have a Senate equivalent, is likely the most expansive of the bills in the antitrust package, forbidding dominant digital platforms from owning lines of business that incentivize them to give their own products and services preference over third parties. Should that bill become law, it could have a huge impact on Amazon, forcing it to split off its first-party store from its sales platform.

Amazon has fought back against the bills. It has sent emails to certain sellers and set up an informational website warning them about how the bills, if they become law, could negatively impact them. Amazon claims that it might have to shut down Marketplace or limit its ability to offer Prime services. The bills’ supporters say that companies would still be able to offer all of those services, but could finally compete on a level playing field.

“We urge Congress to consider these consequences instead of rushing through this ambiguously worded bill,” Brian Huseman, Amazon vice president of public policy, told Recode in a statement. He added that the bills should apply “to all retailers, not just one.”

While Amazon waits to see what the FTC and Congress do, its antitrust battles, real and potential, haven’t seemed to harm its bottom line. Business is good, growing, and disruptive. Amazon is even reportedly preparing to take on Shopify, a platform that helps businesses create their own online shops and has grown exponentially during the pandemic, with a similar offering that could come out as early as this year. If true (Amazon wouldn’t comment), it shows that Amazon isn’t afraid of going after potential threats even while under more scrutiny than it’s ever experienced.

That’s exactly the attitude Racine, the DC attorney general, takes issue with. “Amazon claims to be all about consumers,” he said. “What our evidence shows is that Amazon is all about more profit for Amazon, at the cost of competition and at the expense of consumers. And we’re looking forward to proving that in court.

Sara Morrison

Sara Morrison covers Big Tech and antitrust regulation, in addition to personal data and privacy. She previously covered technology’s impact on the world for Vocativ. Her work has also appeared in the Atlantic, Jezebel, Boston.com, Nieman Reports, and Columbia Journalism Review, among others.

Source: What’s the true cost of Amazon’s low prices? The FTC and Congress have antitrust concerns. – Vox

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Google And Facebook Hit With $238 Million Fines In France Over Privacy Violations

France’s data protection regulator on Thursday hit Google and Facebook with fines of €150 million ($170 million) and €60 million ($68 million), respectively, for failing to provide internet users an easy way to disable online trackers, marking the latest in a series of fines faced by the two American tech giants for failing to comply with European privacy laws.

Key Facts

In a statement outlining its investigation, French regulator CNIL noted that Facebook, Google and Youtube’s websites offered a button that allowed users to immediately accept cookies but did not provide a similar button to easily refuse them.

The regulator added that the process of refusing the online trackers was several steps longer.

The CNIL ruled that this process affects users’ freedom of consent as it influences their choice of accepting or rejecting cookies.

While cookies can be essential for a website’s functioning—allowing for user authentication and remembering preferences among other things—they can also be used to track a user’s online behavior and serve them advertising.

In addition to the hefty fines, both companies have been ordered to update their interface for French users—making it easier for them to reject cookies—within three months.

Key BackgroundThe fines against Google and Facebook follow a series of similar regulatory actions facing U.S  tech giants including Apple and Amazon in Europe. In December 2020, Google and Amazon were hit with similar fines for their handling of web cookies to track user activities without seeking proper consent..

Last year, regulators in France, the U.K., and the EU initiated formal antitrust probes into Google and Facebook’s online advertising business. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which went into effect in May 2018 has dramatically increased the powers of the bloc’s privacy enforcers. Under the law, serious privacy breaches can lead to fines of as much as 4% of a company’s annual global revenue.

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Source: Google And Facebook Hit With $238 Million Fines In France Over Privacy Violations

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Amazon And UPS Are Betting This Electric Aircraft Startup Will Change Shipping

Harvard grad and former pro hockey player Kyle Clark’s startup Beta is on the verge of bringing workhorse battery-powered cargo planes to America’s skies that can take off and land like helicopters.

When he played minor league hockey in the early 2000s, Kyle Clark says his teammates would spend the long bus rides talking about the drugs they’d taken last night and who’d brought a hooker into their hotel room. Clark, a bruising 6-foot-6 enforcer, would bury his nose in textbooks on how to build airplanes. Pretty nerdy – but he’d even stood out as an engineering egghead in the locker room at Harvard, where his teammates had nicknamed him Beta.

Clark never made the NHL, but 20 years later, his startup Beta Technologies is valued at a billion dollars and is on the cusp of making the major leagues with Alia, a potentially groundbreaking electric aircraft.

Alia, whose gracefully angled 50-foot wingspan Clark says was inspired by the long-flying Arctic tern, is one of a slew of novel electric aircraft that aviation upstarts are building that take off and land vertically like a helicopter.

Virtually all of Beta’s competitors, including billionaire Larry Page’s Kitty Hawk and the SPAC cash-rich Joby Aviation, aim to transport people, enabling urbanites to hopscotch over traffic-snarled city streets. But Clark designed Alia primarily as a cargo aircraft, betting that a big market will develop for speeding ecommerce to and from suburban warehouses long before air taxis are considered safe to allow over city streets.

“We’re actually going to win at the passenger game because by the time others are doing passenger missions we will have thousands of aircraft, millions of flight hours and a safe, reliable, vetted design,” says the 41-year-old Clark, whose company is based in his hometown of Burlington, Vermont.

Clark is also spooling up what he thinks will be a lucrative second business: charging stations for electric aircraft of all types that he plans to dot around the country to create the aviation equivalent of Tesla’s supercharger network. There are nine up and running already, in a line from Vermont to Arkansas, with another 51 under construction or in the permitting process.

Most will contain banks of used batteries from Alia aircraft, removed when their capacity has declined about 8%, giving them a profitable second life while Beta sells Alia owners replacement packs at about a half a million a pop. Equipping the charging stations with battery storage will avoid the need for expensive upgrades to the local power grid: Clark’s plan is for them to fill slowly at off-peak times, while unneeded power can be sold back at peak to utilities.

“The aircraft is the sexy part but we’re going to make big money off batteries,” says Clark.

Beta investors Fidelity Management and Amazon are hoping the company will repeat the success of another electric vehicle startup they’ve bankrolled whose market cap recently topped $100 billion. “They see a lot of parallels between Beta and Rivian,” says Edward Eppler, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who joined Beta as CFO after working on its Series A round, which raised $368 million in May at a $1.4 billion valuation. Forbes estimates Beta’s revenue over the past 12 months at $15 million, mostly from U.S. Air Force research contracts.

The cash infusion came a month after Beta won a big endorsement from UPS. Big Brown inked a letter of intent to buy up to 150 Alia aircraft, whose price is expected to fall between $4 million and $5 million apiece. Beta executives are hoping that an order will be forthcoming from Amazon, too, with both the giants looking for ways to make good on pledges to slash carbon emissions from their package delivery operations.

Beta aims to start delivering UPS’ first 10 aircraft in 2024 – assuming it wins safety certification for Alia by then from the Federal Aviation Administration. If not, the U.S. Air Force could end up fielding Alia first: Beta has won contracts worth $43.6 million to test out Alia for military use. In May, Alia became the first electric aircraft to win airworthiness approval from the Air Force for manned flight.

Beta says Alia’s bulbous cabin will be able to carry 600 pounds of payload, including the pilot, a maximum 250 nautical miles — at least 100 miles farther than any competitors that have prototypes in the air — or up to 1,250 pounds for 200 miles with one of the five battery packs removed. Clark expects FAA reserve requirements to restrict flights to 125 miles.

But given Alia’s high price – roughly double a similarly sized new Cessna Grand Caravan and up to five times the used planes that dominate small cargo fleets – Beta and UPS know Alia will only make economic sense if it flies a lot. That will require a radical reshaping of delivery networks away from the longtime hub and spoke pattern under which cargo planes typically make just one roundtrip per day, funneling packages from a local airport to a sorting center.

Instead, they envision Alia flying directly from one UPS warehouse to another – cutting out truck trips as well as plane flights — and eventually straight to large customers. Frequent flying will allow savings as lower operating costs kick in. Beta promises 90% savings on fuel and cheaper maintenance due to the fewer parts of electric propulsion systems — plus a fat 35% reduction if computers eventually bump pilots from the cockpit altogether.

Clark, a heavily tattooed dynamo who rises at 4 a.m. and says he can always find a late hour to work on motorcycles or his own airplanes, grew up outside Burlington obsessed with sports and flight. He was a star athlete at Essex High School, captaining the football, lacrosse and hockey teams. His wife, Katie, whom he met in 7th grade, says when Clark was invited to parties, he’d usually beg off to go home and build model airplanes.

Clark honed his grease monkey skills helping mechanics at a local airport in return for plane rides. When he set out to build an ultralight airplane from a kit, his mother, fearing he would kill himself, built a backyard bonfire and burned the parts.

Clark finally got in the pilot’s seat when the Washington Capitals signed him during his junior year at Harvard: He used the contract bonus to take flying lessons while playing on farm teams in Richmond, Va., and Portland, Maine.

Returning to Harvard after two years, for his senior project, Clark designed a flight control system for a single-person aircraft based on a motorcycle seat and handlebars. Failing to find investors to develop the plane, Clark started a business in 2005 building power supply equipment in his mother-in-law’s garage. In 2010, he sold that company to Dynapower, a Vermont power equipment manufacturer, and became its director of engineering, helping develop systems used in Tesla’s commercial energy storage offering, Powerpack.

After a private-equity group scooped up Dynapower in 2012, Clark found himself armed with a little cash. He motorcycled up and down the East Coast trying again to sell investors on his airplane design. With no takers, he cofounded a social-networking platform in 2014 that connected startups with talent and capital, hoping to use it as a springboard for his own plans.

But it isn’t to the Internet that Beta owes its existence; it’s to the iconoclastic biotech entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt.  After becoming wealthy from founding Sirius Satellite Radio, Rothblatt started a biotech, United Therapeutics, in 1996 to develop a treatment to save her daughter from a lung ailment. The drug worked, but at some point her daughter will still need a lung transplant. That motivated Rothblatt to make an audacious effort to solve the chronic shortfall in organs for transplantation: She’s developing artificial ones.

Electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft are the perfect solution to quickly — and greenly — get the perishable organs to hospital helipads. She contracted with the helicopter company Piasecki to develop one to her specifications, but at a 2017 meeting with subcontractors, she says she was deeply impressed by Clark, whom Piasecki had hired to build the electric power systems.

“I’ve been in countless technical presentations,” says Rothblatt. “I immediately saw that this guy was like a 99th percentile expert.”For customer United Therapeutics, Beta has developed a more elaborate version of its charging station with a landing deck atop modular metal container-like rooms that can be configured as crew rest quarters, mission planning space or storage units.

Discovering Clark lived near her vacation home in Vermont, she invited him over. What was supposed to be a 30-minute coffee became an all-day hangout, with Clark driving her to Montreal for previously scheduled meetings. She decided he was the right person to build the whole aircraft. She gave him $52 million to get Beta started, and has ordered 60 aircraft and eight charging stations.

“You get to tell by spending time with somebody face to face… who will smash down a wall to achieve success and who will just give you excuses,” says Rothblatt. “Kyle was equal to the best executive that I had ever worked with in my life before he’d done anything for me.”

In just eight months, Clark’s small team built and flew Ava, a test mule for key subsystems. Starting with the fuselage of a Lancair plane, they skewered the nose and tail with tilting shafts bearing four pairs of counter-rotating propellers that earned Ava comparisons to Edward Scissorhands.

At 4,000 pounds, it was the largest electric aircraft by weight to date to achieve a vertical takeoff and landing. But along with its successes, it led Clark to conclude that tilting rotors – which many of his competitors are using — were a mistake, adding weight and complexity that threaten to make safety certification more difficult.

Alia, which he began work on in summer 2018, has separate systems for lift and cruise: a pusher propeller at the rear for forward flight, and to take off and land vertically, four propellers mounted atop two booms bisecting its wings. Those long, high wings optimize it for long-distance flight. He says it’s such an efficient glider that if power were lost at 8,000 feet it would smoothly – and safely — descend for about 10 minutes.

And the placement of its 3,300 pounds of batteries at the bottom of the aircraft, counterbalancing the wings, makes Alia inherently stable, in stark comparison to tiltrotors. The simpler design means that Alia’s core flight control program contains only 1,200 lines of code, says Clark; tiltrotors need millions of lines of software.

Observers raise two safety concerns: If it lost one of its four lift propellers, Alia would become difficult to control in vertical mode, and placing the batteries in the belly could pose a fire risk to passengers above. Clark says the passenger compartment floor will have titanium shielding and that losing a lift prop is unlikely – each has four redundant motors.

But regulatory risk is high. After all, the FAA has yet to certify even a conventional airplane with an electric propulsion system, let alone a vertical takeoff and landing one. Clark and Rothblatt’s conviction is that keeping the aircraft as simple as possible is key but it’s anyone’s guess as to how much time it will take the agency to assess Alia’s novel technology – or whether they’ll require modifications that sap its performance. Even Beta true believer Rothblatt is hedging her bets by backing the development of two simpler aircraft: a helicopter retrofitted with an electric propulsion system and a large drone from the Nasdaq-listed Chinese company EHang.

Black images of flying unicorns adorn windows at Beta’s headquarters at Burlington Airport. It’s not a joke about Beta’s status as a billion-dollar aircraft startup. The tail numbers on the two Alia prototypes are N250UT and 251UT, for United Therapeutics and Rothblatt’s stipulation of 250-mile range.

When identifying the aircraft to air traffic controllers, the last two letters should be pronounced as “Uniform Tango” by aviation convention, but to annoy her husband when handling comms during flight tests, Katie Clark took to saying “Unicorn Tango.”

Clark follows two unusual strategies in running Beta: he’s aiming for a flat structure without titles where young engineers feel free to challenge older ones – and he wants everyone to learn to fly.

He gives his 350 employees free lessons in Beta’s motley fleet of 20 airplanes and helicopters, including humdrum Cessna 172 trainers, an Extra aerobatic plane, a World War II Boeing-Stearman biplane and a 1940 Piper Cub.

Many employees have no prior aerospace experience. Getting familiar with aircraft through flying helps them better design aircraft systems, as well as fosters a love of flight that Clark says is more motivating than bonuses. Investors have questioned the expense, but Clark is standing firm. “The sheer passion of when people give a shit is worth more than anything,” he says.

Beta’s investors also would prefer if Clark didn’t insist on being Alia’s test pilot – or burn off steam by doing barrel rolls in the aerobatic plane – as would his wife. Clark says it’s who he is. And he insists that flying Alia himself – which he claims has had no hard landings or crashes – gives him direct insight into whether design tweaks are working and how customers will experience it.

“Are we going to crash a plane or a helicopter? Of course it’s going to happen,” says Clark. “It’s the reality of bringing a new technology to market. The world’s going to be a better place for what we bring, and that takes risks.”

THE POWER THEY NEED TO SUCCEED

A key problem for eVTOL aircraft is the weight of batteries, which contain 14 times less energy by weight than aviation fuel. To achieve their range and payload goals, Beta, Joby Aviation and Kitty Hawk appear to need battery packs with energy densities at the outer range of the newest technologies, while Lilium is way out in experimental territory, according to battery experts Venkat Viswanathan and Shashank Sripad of Carnegie Mellon University.

Batteries are evaluated by two key metrics: specific energy, which is the amount of energy they contain for a given weight; and specific power, a measure of how much energy the battery can discharge at once for a given weight. In a recent paper, Viswanathan and Sripad estimated the pack-level specific energy requirements for five eVTOLs assuming an empty weight fraction of 0.5

(That’s the share of the maximum takeoff weight that’s taken up by the airframe, avionics and other onboard systems). The lower the empty weight fraction, i.e. the lighter the structure, the more room there is for batteries, meaning their specific energy doesn’t need to be as high. The bars to the sides of each square show how much the specific energy requirement varies at empty weight fractions between 0.45 to 0.55.

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Source: Amazon And UPS Are Betting This Electric Aircraft Startup Will Change Shipping

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How Much Control Should Apple Have Over Your iPhone and The App Store

This story is part of a Recode series about Big Tech and antitrust. Over the next few weeks, we’ll cover what’s happening with Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.

We love our mobile apps. It’s hard to think of something that at least one of the nearly 12 million apps out there can’t do. Order a taxi, buy clothes, get directions, play games, message friends, store vaccine cards, control hearing aids, eat, pray, love … the list goes on. You might be using an app to read this very article. And if you’re reading it on an iPhone, then you got that app through the App Store, the Apple-owned and -operated gateway for apps on its phones. But a lot of people want that to change.

Apple is facing growing scrutiny for the tight control it has over so much of the mobile-first, app-centric world it created. The iPhone, which was released in 2007, and the App Store, which came along a year later, helped make Apple one of the most valuable companies on the planet, as well as one of the most powerful. Now, lawmakers, regulators, developers, and consumers are questioning the extent and effects of that power — including if and how it should be reined in.

Efforts in the United States and abroad could significantly loosen Apple’s grip over one of its most important lines of business and fundamentally change how iPhone and iPad users get and pay for their apps. It could make many more apps available. It could make them less safe. And it could make them cheaper.

The iPhone maker isn’t the only company under the antitrust microscope. Once lauded as shining beacons of innovation and ingenuity that would guide the world into the 21st century, Apple is just one of several Big Tech companies now accused of amassing too much power over parts of the economy that have become as essential as steel, oil, and the telephone were in centuries past.

These companies have a great deal of control over what we can do on our phones, the items we buy online and how they get to our homes, our personal data, the internet ecosystem, even our online identities. Some believe the best way to deal with Big Tech now is the way we dealt with steel, oil, and telephone monopolies decades ago: by using antitrust laws to place restrictions on them or even break them up. And if our existing laws can’t do it, legislators want to introduce new laws that target the digital marketplace.

In her book Monopolies Suck, antitrust expert Sally Hubbard described Apple as a “warm and fuzzy monopolist” when compared to Facebook, Google, and Amazon, the other three companies in the so-called Big Four that have been accused of being too big. It doesn’t quite have the negative public perception that its three peers have, and the effects of its exclusive control over mobile apps on its consumers aren’t as obvious.

For many people, Facebook, Google, and Amazon are unavoidable realities of life on the internet these days, while Apple makes products they choose to buy. But more than half of the smartphones in the United States are iPhones, and as those phones become integrated into more facets of our daily lives, Apple’s exclusive control over what we can do with those phones and which apps we can use becomes more problematic. It’s also an outlier; rival mobile operating system Android allows pretty much any app, though app stores may have their own restrictions.

Apple makes the phones. But should Apple set the rules over everything we can do with them? And what are iPhone users missing out on when one company controls so much of their experience on them?

Apple’s vertical integration model was fine until it wasn’t

Many of the problems Apple faces now come from a principle of its business model: Maintain as much control as possible over as many aspects of its products as possible. This is unusual for a computer manufacturer. You can buy a computer with a Microsoft operating system from a variety of manufacturers, and nearly 1,300 brands sell devices with Google’s Android operating system. But Apple’s operating systems — macOS, iOS, iPadOS, and watchOS — are only on Apple’s devices. Apple has said it does this to ensure that its products are easy to use, private, and secure. It’s a selling point for the company and a reason some customers are willing to pay a premium for Apple devices.

Apple doubled down on that vertical integration strategy when it came to mobile apps, only allowing customers to get them through the App Store it owns and operates. Outside developers have to follow Apple’s approval process and abide by its rules to get into the App Store. Apple has a lot of content restrictions for apps that the company says are intended to keep users safe from, for instance, “upsetting or offensive content.” Apple says in its developer guidelines, “If you’re looking to shock and offend people, the App Store isn’t the right place for your app.” But that means Apple mobile devices — more than 1 billion of them worldwide — aren’t the right place for your app, either.

Developers whose apps do make it into the App Store may also find themselves paying Apple a hefty chunk of their income. Apple takes a commission from purchases of the apps themselves as well as purchases made within the apps. That commission is up to 30 percent and has been dubbed the App Store tax. There’s no way for apps to get around the commission for app purchases, and users have to pay for goods and services outside of the app to get around the in-app payment system’s commission.

Some of those developers are also competing with Apple when it comes to making certain kinds of apps. Developers have accused Apple of “Sherlocking” their apps — that’s when Apple makes an app that’s strikingly similar to a successful third-party app and promotes it in the App Store or integrates it into device software in ways that outside developers can’t. One famous example of this is how, after countless flashlight apps that used the iPhone’s camera flash became popular in the App Store, Apple built its own flashlight tool and integrated it into iOS in 2013. Suddenly, those third-party apps weren’t necessary.

Apple has also been accused of abusing its control to give it an advantage over streaming services. Spotify has complained for years that Apple has given an unfair competitive advantage to its Apple Music service, which came along a few years after Spotify. After all, Apple doesn’t have to pay an App Store tax for its own Music app, which comes pre-installed on iPhones and iPads, or the streaming service, which Apple can and does promote on its devices. (Apple points out that it only has 60 of its own apps, so clearly it’s not competing with every single third-party app in its store, or even the vast majority of them.)

“What Apple realized is that if they could control the App Store, they really control the rest of the game,” Daniel Hanley, senior legal analyst at Open Markets Institute, an anti-monopoly advocacy group, told Recode. “They don’t just control the hardware, now they control the software. They control how apps get on — it’s unilateral.”

This has all been a big moneymaker for Apple. Apple won’t say how big, but an expert said he believes the App Store alone made $22 billion in 2020, about 80 percent of which was profit. That profit margin estimate suggests that the mandatory commissions Apple takes from those apps far exceed the company’s costs for maintaining the App Store.

Because Apple refuses to allow alternate app stores or in-app payment systems, there’s no competition that might motivate it to lower those commissions — which could, in turn, allow developers to charge less for apps and in-app purchases. The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust’s report from the Democratic majority cited numerous examples of developers claiming that they had to raise their own prices to consumers to compensate for Apple’s commission.

Apple disputes some of these numbers but, again, refuses to give its own. Its financial statements lump the App Store in with other “services,” including iCloud and Apple’s TV, Music, and Pay. Even so, there’s little doubt that the App Store’s success has helped, if not driven, Apple’s transition from being primarily a hardware company to a goods and services provider.

“It’s a nice, fat [revenue] stream where they don’t have to do a ton of R&D,” Brian Merchant, technology journalist and author of The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, told Recode. “All they have to do is protect their walled garden.”

The case for only one App Store (Apple’s)

Apple says the security and privacy features its customers expect are impossible to provide without having this control over the apps on its phone. The company calls this a “trusted ecosystem.”

Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, recently said that allowing Apple users to get apps through third-party app stores or by downloading them directly from the open internet (a practice known as sideloading) would open them up to a “Pandora’s box” of malware, though iPhones aren’t exactly immune to spyware. Similarly, Apple says its in-app payment systems are secure and private, which it can’t guarantee of anyone else’s.

These arguments aren’t necessarily wrong — there are plenty of malicious apps out there — but they don’t account for the fact that Apple doesn’t seem to have any problem with its Mac computers getting their apps from third-party app stores or through sideloading.

As for those commissions, Apple is quick to point out that the vast majority of apps, which are free, don’t pay Apple anything at all and still get all of the App Store’s benefits. Many apps are funded by selling ads and user data, which they don’t have to share with Apple, though Apple has recently tried to make this outside revenue stream less lucrative for developers by introducing anti-tracking features into iOS.

Those measures, which Apple says are designed to improve user privacy, could ultimately force developers to charge users for apps (more money for Apple!). So when Apple decided to stop much of that data flow, it upended an entire ecosystem worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year — Facebook was even reportedly considering filing an antitrust lawsuit over it. That’s how much control Apple has over its devices and, by extension, a considerable part of the global economy.

A privacy pop-up on an Apple iPhone reads, “Allow Facebook to track your activity across other companies’ apps and websites? This allows Facebook to provide you with a better ads experience. Ask app not to track. Allow.”
A privacy notice on an iPhone allows the user to decide whether to permit cross-app tracking.
Christoph Dernbach/picture alliance via Getty Images

The App Store tax is also in line with what other app stores charge, per an independent report that Apple commissioned last year. Apple, the app store pioneer, was the one that set that 30 percent app store commission rate in the first place.

And Apple does allow for ways to get around some of its App Store taxes. People can purchase subscriptions and certain in-app services outside of apps if they have an account with the developer, which means no App Store tax to either raise prices or cut into the developer’s profit margin. Going to the developer’s website to pay also takes several more steps and more time on the part of the customer to do it.

But in the US, Apple’s best defense against accusations that its App Store is an illegal monopoly may be to simply point to existing antitrust laws, or at least how courts interpret them. Apple does have a monopoly on app stores on Apple devices, but there’s nothing necessarily illegal about that. Monopolies are only illegal if they operate in anti-competitive ways, and the bar to proving even that is pretty high. For the last four decades, courts have interpreted the law as protecting competition (and, by extension, the consumers who supposedly benefit from it), not competitors.

“Our law is very, very conservative,” Eleanor M. Fox, a professor of antitrust law and competition policy at New York University, told Recode. “Companies — even monopoly companies — do not have a duty to deal, and they don’t have a duty to deal fairly.”

We’ve seen this precedent at work in the Epic Games v. Apple case. In August 2020, Epic Games, the developer behind the popular game Fortnite, sued Apple over its refusal to allow alternate app stores and payment systems, as well as its anti-steering policy that forbids developers from linking out to alternate ways to pay for app services or even telling users that other payment methods are possible. Apple kicked Fortnite out of its App Store when Epic tried to flout its rules. A federal judge ruled in September that Apple was well within its rights to do so.

The judge noted that the App Store had “procompetitive justifications.” Even though she found that Apple had a large part of the mobile gaming transactions market and that the App Store’s profit margins were “extraordinarily high,” she didn’t think it created a barrier to entry for developers, nor that it was harming innovation. (Epic has appealed this ruling.)

“Success is not illegal,” the judge wrote.

Epic’s only victory was that the judge ordered Apple to allow developers to link out to and inform users about other ways to pay for app services. Apple was able to delay that particular ruling, and according to a court filing, the company may even try to charge commissions on purchases made through the alternate payment systems if it’s forced to let developers link out to them. Even when Apple loses, it tries to find a way to win.

A person in a dark suit carries two large binders full of papers.
Legal staff representing Epic Games carry documents for trial at the United States District Court in Oakland, California, in May.
Philip Pacheco/Getty Images

Apple’s attempts to avoid antitrust actions

While Apple insists that it isn’t doing anything wrong, the company appears to be concerned that its control over its devices faces some real threats. Apple historically refuses to give up ground on just about everything, yet it’s already made notable adjustments to some of its more controversial policies that could make some apps or services cheaper, or at least easier for the user to find cheaper ways to pay for them. Some of these changes were mandatory, yes, but others appear to be an effort to ward off harsher regulations or judgments.

For instance, Apple loosened its notoriously tight grip on repairs to its devices, allowing more independent shops and, very recently, individual consumers, to have access to the parts and instructions necessary to make certain fixes. This comes in the midst of a push for “right to repair” laws and pressure from the Biden administration and the Federal Trade Commission. But Apple still requires that its own parts be used for these repairs and sets the prices for them.

The stickiness and required usage of Apple’s native apps has long been a gripe from many iPhone users and a bad look for the company from an antitrust perspective. So this year, Apple started allowing users to select their own default apps for web browsing and mail; previously, Apple’s Safari and Mail apps were the mandatory default. Users have been able to delete most of the Apple apps that come pre-installed on their phones since 2018.

Apple has also given some developers a break on the App Store tax and anti-steering policies, which could reduce prices for consumers. Developers who make less than $1 million a year now only have to pay a 15 percent App Store tax. This came about as part of a settlement of a class action lawsuit, but Apple has presented it as a “Small Business Program” that’s “designed to accelerate innovation” (a phrase that could be read as implying that the 30 percent commission decelerated innovation).

Apple is also going to let developers contact customers outside of the app to let them know about alternate payment methods. As part of an agreement with the Japan Fair Trade Commission, Apple will soon let “reader” apps (that is, apps like Netflix and Spotify that offer media for purchase or subscription) link out to their own websites to make it easier for users to purchase subscriptions outside of Apple’s in-app payment system.

In 2016, Apple also cut its commission to 15 percent for subscription apps after the first year. Of course, this change was revealed at the same time as Apple’s announcement that it would sell search ads in its App Store, giving itself yet another exclusive source of revenue (and giving users a bunch of ads when they search the App Store).

But these concessions do nothing for the source of the vast majority of the App Store’s commissions: games from developers that make more than $1 million a year. And Apple hasn’t wavered on the practices that have drawn the bulk of the accusations that Apple’s practices — including the company not allowing alternate App Stores or sideloading, and not allowing alternate payment systems — are anti-competitive, increase prices for consumers, and reduce their choice. It seems unlikely that Apple will give way any time soon. Unless, of course, it has to.

How does Apple’s walled garden grow — or die?

There are plenty of reasons why Apple might have to change its ways. The company may have won most of the Epic Games lawsuit (pending Epic’s appeal), but it still faces antitrust action on several fronts that will play out over the coming years.

Margrethe Vestager speaking onstage in front of a wall that reads, “Antitrust: Apple App Store practices Music streaming.”
Margrethe Vestager, European commissioner for competition, speaks during an online news conference on the Apple antitrust case at EU headquarters in Brussels, in April.
Francisco Seco/AFP via Getty Images

A growing number of countries have introduced or proposed laws that specifically target certain App Store practices, or are investigating Apple for potential violations of their competition rules. These include but are not limited to the European Union, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea, and Australia.

Those could result in fines, which Apple, a $2 trillion company, probably isn’t too worried about. It also wouldn’t be the first time Apple has paid a considerable sum over antitrust violations. Another outcome — one that would be a much more troubling prospect for Apple — would be if the company were forced to change its business practices in order to keep operating in those countries.

But in the United States, courts haven’t seemed too bothered by Apple’s App Store rules. A federal judge recently threw out a class action lawsuit from developers that said Apple was abusing its monopoly power by refusing to allow their apps in the App Store. As the Epic Games ruling indicates, American antitrust laws (and most courts’ interpretation of them) haven’t done much to change or force change on Big Tech companies. If you’re a lawmaker who is concerned about Big Tech’s considerable power, that’s a green light to propose laws that will.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), for example, said the ruling showed that “much more must be done” about the “serious competition concerns” app stores raise. As chair of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, as well as a member of the Commerce Committee, she’s in a pretty good position to push through bills that do just that.

Klobuchar is a co-sponsor of the Open App Markets Act, a bipartisan, bicameral bill that would do most of what Epic Games wanted. The legislation would force Apple to allow third-party app stores and the sideloading of third-party apps, require that app stores allow alternate payment systems, and forbid anti-steering policies. It would also ban app stores from giving their own apps special treatment or using non-public data from third-party apps to develop their own, competing apps.

The Open App Markets Act isn’t the only bill that could drastically change how Apple runs its App Store. Several more are currently making their way through both houses of Congress as part of its package of antitrust bills that target Big Tech. If passed, they’d also force Apple to include other app stores on its devices and forbid it from giving its own apps special treatment. One bill, the Ending Platform Monopolies Act, would even force Apple to break up its App Store and app development units into separate businesses.

All of these bills are bipartisan, but it’s far from certain that any of them will become law. If they do, and in something close to their current form, they could benefit consumers by giving them more choice of apps on their phone, and it could make those apps cheaper. It may also subject iPhone users to additional safety and security threats, as Apple alleges, while prices stay largely unchanged.

Apple says it supports updates to laws and regulations that benefit consumers, like privacy legislation — which the current bills on the table don’t do much to directly address.

The Department of Justice, which has been investigating Apple since 2019, is reportedly preparing a lawsuit concerning the App Store. It and the FTC enforce America’s antitrust laws. Both agencies are headed up by people who have accused Apple of anti-competitive actions or worked for firms that have. Lina Khan, a Big Tech critic who helped write the House’s report, is now the chair of the FTC, and Jonathan Kanter, who advised Spotify when it lobbied Congress to take action against Apple, leads the DOJ’s antitrust division. Both agencies may get a major, needed funding boost if the Build Back Better Act and a bill that increases merger fees for large companies pass.

With all of this said, Apple, “the warm and fuzzy monopolist,” is probably in a better position with its ongoing antitrust problems than its fellow Big Tech titans are with theirs. It has, so far, faced relatively less criticism in general, and many of the proposed bills and regulations don’t threaten its business model as much as they do that of the other companies. If Apple were forced to allow other app stores on its devices tomorrow, it would still have plenty of very healthy revenue streams.

Those may still include the App Store. It’s not clear that many of Apple’s users would even use or want another app store. The fact that they use an iPhone and not an Android speaks to this. They could prefer or trust the security and privacy protections in the App Store over those of, say, a Facebook app store. Then again, if those other app stores took a lower commission from developers, allowing them to charge less than the Apple App Store does, Apple’s customers may well vote with their wallets, and developers might only offer their apps in stores that give them a better margin. In which case, Apple might just find itself finally having to compete for apps and customers — and maybe even lowering the App Store tax to do it. Apple wouldn’t be thrilled, but it would be just fine.

Update, December 9, 3:50 pm ET: This article has been updated to reflect that Apple won its appeal to delay implementing the court order to allow apps to link out to other payment methods.

Sara Morrison

 

Source: How much control should Apple have over your iPhone and the App Store? – Vox

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Amazon Funds Its Empire By Squeezing Its Marketplace Sellers

Amazon has always presented its Marketplace, where outside businesses sell products through Amazon’s platform, as one of its biggest success stories: mutually beneficial to Amazon, sellers, and customers alike. But a new report says those benefits are increasingly lopsided — in Amazon’s favor.

The report, which comes from the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), asserts that Amazon takes a larger and larger cut of sellers’ earnings through the various fees it levies on them. These fees have become so lucrative for Amazon that they now represent the company’s most profitable segment as well as its fastest-growing revenue stream, according to ILSR. And because sellers are paying Amazon high fees, customers may face inflated prices, even when they shop beyond Amazon’s borders.

“Amazon is the only winner here,” Stacy Mitchell, ILSR co-director and author of the report, told Recode. “It’s exploiting its monopoly power over these small businesses to pocket a huge and growing cut of their revenue.”

You might consider this to be a good business strategy on Amazon’s part, as it’s certainly paid off for the company. And some sellers on Amazon’s platform say they’re happy with the arrangement — at least, for now. But a growing number of others argue that Amazon’s dominance over the e-commerce market and its power over its sellers has given rise to anti-competitive practices that hurt Amazon’s competitors, competition in general, and consumers.

“Amazon’s dominance is bad for businesses, jobs, and America’s competitiveness,” Rep. David Cicilline, chair of the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee, told Recode. “This important study makes clear that Amazon is crushing sellers through abusive policies that make it nearly impossible for everyday businesses to get ahead.”

These are some of the same issues identified by regulators and lawmakers who have accused Amazon of abusing its market dominance. They say it’s further evidence that action must be taken to curb Amazon’s power — and some of them are already working on legislation.

“It is important to understand how tech platforms can exploit their power to hurt small businesses and raise prices for consumers,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, chair of the Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee, told Recode. “This report highlights how Amazon’s tactics can lead to that result and why Congress must act to set clear rules of the road for the digital giants that dominate our online economy.”

Amazon disputes the report’s findings, calling it “intentionally misleading” for lumping its mandatory fees and optional services together as “seller fees.” Amazon maintains that all of its fees — mandatory and optional — are competitive with what similar services charge, and that many sellers are successful without taking advantage of those optional services. But Mitchell says many sellers feel compelled to pay those ostensibly optional fees if they want their businesses to stay afloat.

Marketplace: The gift that keeps on giving (to Amazon)

Marketplace is a huge part of Amazon’s business. In his 2020 letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos said it accounted for nearly 60 percent of Amazon’s retail sales, which come from nearly 2 million sellers. So when you buy a product on Amazon, chances are it was sold by an independent business using Amazon’s platform. Amazon isn’t providing that platform for free.

“The trade-off that any seller is dealing with is you get access to a huge audience, you get access to scale, the ability to scale your sales, but it comes at a cost to margin,” Andrew Lipsman, principal analyst at eMarketer, told Recode.

The cost to sellers is increasing every year, according to ILSR’s analysis, making business unsustainable for some sellers while Amazon’s profits grow.

The new ILSR report found that Amazon’s seller fees accounted for an average of 19 percent of sellers’ earnings in 2014. That’s almost doubled to 34 percent in 2021. And while seller fees accounted for 14 percent of Amazon’s entire revenue in 2014, that figure is up to 25 percent in 2021. Amazon will pull in $121 billion from seller fees alone, ILSR estimates.

That revenue translates to a lot of profit — more than even Amazon Web Services (AWS), Amazon’s cloud computing platform typically believed to be the company’s most profitable arm. AWS netted $13.5 billion in 2020, according to Amazon’s financial data. ILSR estimates seller fees netted $24 billion. (Amazon says these figures are inaccurate but did not provide its own; the company’s public earnings statements also don’t combine seller fees in this way.)

“Everyone thinks AWS generates all of Amazon’s profits,” Mitchell said. “But in fact, Marketplace is this massive tollbooth that gushes profits.”

Seller fees primarily come from three things: sales, fulfillment, and ads. Every item sold is subject to a referral fee, which is Amazon’s commission. Over the years, that’s stayed pretty consistent at 15 percent (it may be lower or higher, depending on the product category). According to ILSR, those referral fees made up the majority of seller fees as recently as 2017.

Since then, however, the majority of fees come from Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA), Amazon’s service that stores, packs, and ships sellers’ items to customers. Ad revenue is steadily gaining ground as more sellers pay for more ads to get prominent placement on Amazon’s site, including on product pages and search results.

Sellers who use FBA pay Amazon a fee based on the size and type of item they sell. Sellers also have to pay to ship items to and from Amazon’s fulfillment centers and to store them there. For some sellers, this might be a cheaper or easier option than doing it all themselves. Amazon says FBA’s pricing is competitive with similar fulfillment services if not cheaper, and sellers aren’t required to use it.

But help with logistics isn’t the only appeal of FBA for many sellers. Enrolling in the FBA program is the only way that most sellers can qualify for Prime. (Some sellers may qualify for Seller Fulfilled Prime, but it’s not accepting new enrollees at this time.) Getting that Prime badge is huge for a seller. Amazon shoppers — especially those 200 million Prime members — are far more likely to buy products that qualify for Amazon Prime. But that’s not only because they want to take advantage of the free shipping. It’s also because customers may not even see non-Prime offerings in the first place, thanks to the mechanics of the so-called Buy Box.

When multiple sellers offer the same item, Amazon’s algorithm picks one of them to be the default purchase on the product’s page. This is called “winning the Buy Box,” and when the customer clicks to add an item to their cart or to buy now, the seller who won the Buy Box is the one who gets the sale.

Prime items are far more likely to win the Buy Box than non-Prime items, and customers rarely click on that small “other sellers” link or the small “new and used” box where all the other listings are housed. This gives sellers a major incentive to pay for FBA, even if it costs more than taking care of the shipping themselves.

These FBA fees have been great for Amazon, which has dramatically expanded the logistics network that powers FBA as well as the number of sellers participating in the program. Five years ago, about half of Amazon’s top 10,000 sellers worldwide used FBA. By 2019, it was 85 percent. Amazon even offers a version of FBA for products ordered from other e-commerce services, including Shopify. Dave Clark, the CEO of Amazon’s consumer business, believes his company will be the largest delivery service in the United States by early 2022.

FBA aside, there are other ways sellers are paying Amazon more and more in the hope of generating sales. Amazon has been making a big push into digital advertising recently, and seller ads are part of its strategy. Critics have accused Amazon of increasing the number of sponsored slots in search results to increase ad inventory, and of charging more for the ads in them. (Amazon says the number of ads varies, and pricing is determined by an auction.)

Because of this, some sellers feel like they’re paying more and getting less. Amazon itself says these ads increase product visibility, which can translate into more sales. But that also means less visibility for the products in organic search results that earned their placement through strong sales and positive reviews. Sellers are already competing for this space with Amazon’s own products, and that competition might not be fair, as Amazon reportedly ranks its own products above others that had higher ratings. (Amazon has disputed these reports and says its ranking models don’t take into account whether the product is made by Amazon or offered by a third-party seller.)

Either way, many sellers increasingly feel pressure to buy ads just to get the same search placement (and sales) they once got for free. In a statement to Recode, Amazon maintained that FBA and ads are not mandatory and that sellers may find them beneficial.

“Sellers are not required to use our logistics or advertising services, and only use them if they provide incremental value to their businesses,” an Amazon spokesperson said.

How sellers’ problems affect your wallet

If you’re not a seller that relies on Amazon to survive, you might not see how any of this affects you. If you’re an Amazon customer, you might even think that this system is ensuring that you can buy products at the best price. But you might be wrong.

“Whether you shop on Amazon or not, you are paying higher prices because of its monopoly power,” Mitchell said.

When sellers have to raise their prices to account for Amazon’s increased fees, they often pass those costs along to the customer. And, thanks to Amazon’s fair pricing policy, sellers have to offer the same price on other platforms that they do on Amazon — even if their costs to sell on those platforms are less. If they don’t, Amazon may suspend or demote their listings. Sellers don’t want to take that risk, which could be potentially devastating to their business.

This policy could mean that, as sellers adjust their prices to account for Amazon’s fees, prices end up being higher elsewhere, too. It also makes it harder for other e-commerce platforms to compete with Amazon and challenge its market dominance, since they aren’t able to offer lower prices that would attract more customers. The lack of options means sellers are basically stuck with Amazon if they want to reach its exponentially larger and loyal consumer base.

Sellers have helped Amazon grow to own 40 percent and 50 percent (depending which report you cite) of the e-commerce market in the United States, and in some product categories, its share is far higher. Its closest platform competitor, Walmart, has just 7 percent. Amazon is often the first place online shoppers look for products — even before search engines — especially if those shoppers are Prime members. A large, established company can pull itself out of Amazon, as Nike did in 2019, and still do fine. Most businesses don’t have that luxury.

“Small businesses don’t have other options when it comes to the digital economy,” Rep. Ken Buck, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee, told Recode. “Amazon continues to use their monopoly power to crush competition.”

One solution is for lawmakers and regulators to step in. Some are trying: The European Commission announced last year that it is investigating whether Amazon gave preferential treatment to itself and sellers that used FBA when determining who gets the Buy Box. The fair pricing policy and its potential to inflate prices across the internet is the basis of the District of Columbia’s lawsuit against Amazon, as well as a class action lawsuit filed by Amazon customers last year.

Several members of Congress — Buck, Cicilline, and Klobuchar among them — have introduced bills that would forbid some of Amazon’s practices they believe to be anti-competitive. These bills came out of a 16-month-long House antitrust subcommittee investigation into Big Tech companies, including Amazon. The committee accused Amazon of luring in customers and sellers with artificially low prices and Prime memberships that the company loses money on, only to raise rates as soon as Amazon’s market dominance was assured.

The proposed legislation would forbid Amazon from giving its own products prominent placement, unless it earned that place organically, and from requiring sellers to pay for ads or services like FBA in order to get preferred placement. One bill would forbid Amazon from competing in a marketplace it also owns, and could force Amazon to split off into a first-party sales company and a company that operates a platform for third-party sellers.

Amazon has responded to all of this by denying that such measures are necessary or that it’s doing anything wrong. The company has become one of the biggest lobbying spenders in the country, and it’s been emailing select sellers to warn them that pending antitrust legislation could make it difficult or impossible for them to sell their products on Amazon.

After years of studying Amazon’s business practices, Mitchell, of ILSR, thinks the best solution is arguably the most drastic.

“Policymakers could regulate Amazon’s fees — basically accept it as a regulated shopping monopoly, like a utility,” she said. “But I think a much better, more market-oriented approach is to break it up by splitting Amazon’s major divisions into stand-alone companies.”

Source: Amazon funds its empire by squeezing its marketplace sellers

 

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