Interview: Rep. Pramila Jayapal on why her new legislation might make Amazon an illegal monopoly
Few lawmakers have gotten Amazon’s attention like the one who hails from the company’s hometown, Rep. Pramila Jayapal. The 7th Congressional District Democrat has made the powerful tech industry a primary focus and in particular what she sees as potentially monopolistic practices of the Big Four: Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple.
Recently, Rep. Jayapal sat down with GeekWire to talk about her “Ending Platform Monopolies Act” (H.R. 3825) — legislation she says has the support of the Biden administration — as well as her passion for the U.S. to be a leader in vaccine distribution worldwide and why paid child leave should be a part of infrastructure plans.
The Q&A below has been edited for brevity and clarity. Watch or listen to the full interview in the podcast or video below.
GeekWire: You find yourself in a bit of a dust-up with the state’s largest employer and one of the country’s largest employers in Amazon. Before we get into the specifics of your legislation, the Ending Platform Monopolies Act, how do you see Amazon as both a company and as an employer?
Rep. Jayapal: Look, I am really grateful for the innovation that exists in our district and the fact that Amazon was born here and provides many, many good-paying jobs to people across the state and across the country. But none of that changes the fact that monopoly power as a whole actually prevents creativity and innovation, the kind of which led to Amazon’s creation, and led to Seattle and the 7th district being as successful as it is in those areas.
The reality is that when you have this kind of concentrated monopoly power, and you do not have antitrust regulation of the kind that we are proposing, then what happens is you concentrate all of the power with just a couple of Big Tech companies, and you disadvantage small businesses, you disadvantage consumers, and equally important you disadvantage innovation and competition.
I understand that probably a significant portion of my constituents work for Amazon. This is not at all about the people that work for Amazon, but it is about concentrated power and the government’s role in regulating and reining back that concentration so other small businesses can thrive and survive.
GW: Let’s talk a little bit about your legislation. Can you explain what you mean about “conflict of interest” and antitrust, specifically, as it relates to Amazon and what your legislation would do?
Rep. Jayapal: It’s sort of like when you have two teams on a field. And the person that is the referee, the (same) person that sets the rules for the game, the person that calls all of the plays, and the person that happens to play on one of the teams, everybody would say, ‘well, that’s not fair, that doesn’t make any sense.’ Well, that’s what conflict of interest in the antitrust world means with these tech companies.
We’ll take the example of Amazon. Amazon is a marketplace, they control the marketplace, they set the rules of the game for the marketplace. If you want to sell on Amazon’s marketplace, you have to follow those rules. They then collect all of the data on every seller that sells on the marketplace. And then they produce their own private label goods to compete with those that are on the marketplace.
All of that means is that a small business has an extremely unfair situation where they’re not playing by the same rules, all of their data is being taken.
Amazon knows exactly what’s selling and to whom and how much it costs, and how much consumers are willing to pay. So they can undercut and push a seller out of business or they will acquire the company which you know, for some companies, that’s great that you acquire it, but it takes away all of the competition.
GW: So what is the practical application? Is essentially the idea is to break Amazon into at least two — if not more — companies?
Rep. Jayapal: Well, if Amazon or any other tech company didn’t comply and had a conflict of interest, then yes, you would have to separate them. Now there are other things that could happen in the process — they could essentially spin off a company, the ownership would have to be different. You couldn’t just spin it off and call it something else. But there are lots of things that could happen along the way. But if they still refuse to comply, then yes, the solution would be to break up the company and to make sure that there is a structural separation between the buy and the sell side, if you will.
GW: Andy Jassy is now in charge of the company. This legislation is sitting out there and other bills are sitting out there that I’m sure he is taking a keen interest in. Have you met with Andy Jassy? And do you see any possibility of new leadership there opening the door to some form of dialogue?
Rep. Jayapal: I have not met with him, yet. But I would be happy to meet with him. I was happy to meet with Amazon before. That was not something they sought out. I think we had an early meeting that didn’t go particularly well. But I think that the reality is that the tech companies that understand that this regulation is coming. And by the way, it’s not just in Washington, D.C. This is happening around the world, in the European Union and other parts of the world, the same kinds of regulations are coming into play.
GW: Where do you what do you expect the trajectory particularly to the monopoly platform act? And is the White House supportive?
Rep. Jayapal: They are supportive, actually. And you might have seen that they appointed some of our best people that we were pushing, (FTC Chair) Lina Khan, (National Economic Council deputy director) Bharat Ramamurti, (special assistant to the president) Tim Wu, many others. And even the Attorney General for antitrust, (Jonathan Kanter) great choice. We’re excited about him. So it’s looking very good. The trajectory will be that the Senate will introduce the same House bills, ideally with bipartisan co-sponsorship again, and then we will try to move the bills through the house as quickly as we can. Obviously, we’re focused on reconciliation now. But my hope is that within the next three to six months, we could move those bills through the House.
[Editor’s Note: When we asked Amazon for comment, the company referred us to a June statement by Brian Huseman, its vice president of public policy, on Jayapal’s bill and others in the House seeking to regulate tech marketplace competition.
In essence, Amazon contends that the bills would have “significant negative effects,” making it tougher for businesses to reach and market to Amazon customers and make a living via its marketplace, while reducing price competition and probably increasing prices for consumers. Amazon called on Congress to slow down and “thoroughly vet the language in the bills for unintended negative consequences.”]
GW: Let’s focus on Washington state. Are you supportive of the idea of mandatory vaccine mandates?
Rep. Jayapal: I am supportive of that. We have done everything that we possibly can to incentivize people to get vaccines. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation out there. I’m not talking about the people who can’t get vaccines because of their compromised immune status. I’m not talking about people who just haven’t gotten a day off of work and so can’t get to a place to get a vaccine. I’m talking about people that are willfully spreading misinformation about vaccines.
There are many vaccines that you get to protect yourself, but they don’t really have an effect on anybody else. That is not the case with the COVID vaccine. The COVID vaccine is about protecting yourself, but it’s actually about protecting everybody around you. Because the more people that are unvaccinated, the more the virus has the ability to transmute into more and more dangerous, you know, variants, and to kill more and more people. So unless we achieve vaccination status at a certain threshold, we are going to continue to deal with this and see more and more deaths of people who are vaccinated and unvaccinated because the virus will continue to change and transmute.
GW: What should be at the top of Washington’s wish list when it comes to infrastructure, from the federal government infrastructure funding?
Rep. Jayapal: Well, it depends on how you define infrastructure. I just have to start with that because infrastructure as being not only roads and bridges but everything that you need to get on the road. That means childcare, that means community college so that people can get training. So to me, it’s all one big picture. But in terms of physical hard infrastructure, what I believe is that we have to address all of the pieces of infrastructure that have crumbled underneath us. That is not just roads and bridges. It is also our lead water pipes. We need to get drinking water clean. We need to make sure that we are investing in green energy solutions, including electric vehicles, transit, all of the things that allow us to take on climate change at the same time.