Senators turn up the heat on Amazon and data brokers during hearing

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) led attacks on e-commerce giant Amazon during a hearing on data privacy and competition on Tuesday, while other senators on the panel raised concerns about the collection of user information by data brokers.

Warren, chair of the subcommittee on fiscal responsibility and economic growth, focused her time on accusations that the market power of tech giants is driving up prices and creating inhumane conditions for workers. But Ranking Member Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and other Democrats have largely focused on data privacy concerns.

The broad scope of the hearing and questions from lawmakers indicated that while senators are fairly united on general criticism of Amazon and other tech giants, there is still a deep divide on how to approach regulations.

“The United States is at an inflection point. Wealth and income disparities are at levels we have never seen in our lifetime. The government’s lax enforcement of antitrust laws in recent decades is a big part of this problem; regulators and judges have cleared merger after merger and the result is too little competition in US markets,” Warren said.

“The dominant tech companies are pretty much free to do whatever they want, including when it comes to data collection. They raise prices, they cut salaries, they threaten our privacy – all so they can increase their profits for their shareholders and enrich their CEOs.

Amazon was front and center during the hearing with DC Attorney General Karl Racine (D), who is leading an antitrust lawsuit against Amazon, and an Amazon associate who was on the witness panel on Tuesday.

Racine’s lawsuit against Amazon focuses on the company’s treatment of third-party and first-party sellers on the platform. The complaint alleges that the company locked in proprietary sellers into anti-competitive agreements, as well as imposed excessive fees on third-party sellers, resulting in higher prices and less choice for consumers.

“Look at it like a toll booth keeper. If the road only leads to the toll, the toll keeper can raise those prices and you as the driver have no choice but to pay what they charge if you try to take that road . We think it’s illegal. We appreciate the work of this great committee, we will make the law in court and look forward to helping with potential legislation,” Racine said.

Courtenay Brown, an associate at an Amazon fulfillment center in New Jersey, testified to the harsh working conditions at the site. When asked by Warren if there were other job options for her and her co-workers, Brown said there were limited choices in other warehouse or retail positions.

“Amazon just pays a little more than them so we’re stuck being exploited in warehouses like this and that’s what they rely on. They know we have no other choice so they continue with the lack of regulation and everything to protect us,” Brown said.

An Amazon spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. The company has already pushed back against Racine’s lawsuit allegations and defended its treatment of workers.

Other senators on the panel did not voice opposition to Warren’s calls for an overhaul of antitrust laws, but instead focused their time in the hearing on expert data privacy witnesses.

Cassidy, a former physician, interviewed Justin Sherman, a data scientist at Duke University, about concerns that data brokers may infer information about a person’s medical information or diagnoses using data such as the location status. For example, data brokers can infer that a person is diagnosed with a mental illness if they regularly attend a certain treatment center or clinic.

“That’s exactly the problem with data brokers, senator,” Sherman said. “They can essentially bypass the very few very limited privacy laws that we have by proxy and run algorithms to get that information anyway.”

This information can then be sold to market products to users based on the collected data, he added.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) also focused his time on data privacy, but noted that economic issues are closely tied to privacy concerns.

“Privacy is a huge economic and national security issue and you can’t just separate them into separate boxes. This issue of economics, national security and privacy are directly linked,” he said.

Stacey Gray, senior counsel for the Future of Privacy Forum, said the “scale and volume” of the modern commercial data ecosystem has made it “increasingly untenable” to separate related areas of privacy enforcement. law and the use of data for national security and commercial uses and collections. of data.

The absence of questions about competition from other senators during the hearing, however, may be a sign of the difficult road ahead for proposals to overhaul antitrust laws.

Warren has been a big proponent of overhauling antitrust laws and giving regulators more power to go after the biggest tech companies. As a presidential candidate, breaking up the tech giants was a cornerstone of her campaign.

There are a handful of proposals in the Senate to revamp antitrust measures, and the Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee chaired by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has held numerous hearings on the topic.

These proposals have garnered some bipartisan support, but lack the widespread support to move them forward. In the House, a set of bills that came out of the Judiciary Committee in June are stalled due to opposition from both sides of the aisle. These bills reflect some of the Senate’s proposals.

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