The holiday season is a reminder that with more Americans than ever heading online to do their shopping, lawmakers must continue taking action to prevent consumers from falling prey to internet scammers. That’s why it was welcome news when Amazon recently reversed course on its longstanding opposition to bipartisan consumer protection legislation in Congress that would require third-party online marketplaces to verify independent sellers, with the goal of reducing counterfeits and stolen goods from these platforms.
But while Amazon’s public change of heart seemingly paves the way for the eventual passage of the bill, known as the INFORM Consumers Act, lawmakers must ensure that the retail giant and other tech companies do not work behind the scenes to water down the legislation and render it toothless. Counterfeits pose great harm to consumers and small third-party sellers, and Congress must pass strong, comprehensive enforcement mechanisms to adequately protect both groups.
Amazon’s decision to endorse INFORM was certainly a surprise. Just this summer, Amazon launched an aggressive lobbying campaign to kill a more robust version of the legislation. But while Amazon ostensibly supports the current bill, it has reportedly unleased its lobbyists in the Beltway to weaken it. While lawmakers such as Sen. Dick Durbin, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, say they refuse to let this happen, they should remain on high alert.
This is because we’ve seen Amazon’s playbook for publicly supporting legislation while simultaneously working to weaken it behind the scenes. For instance, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos won praise earlier this year when he embraced President Biden’s plan to raise the corporate tax rate. But behind the scenes, the company enlisted an army of lobbyists to maintain the research and development tax credit, which has been estimated to save the company hundreds of millions of dollars a year. As I’ve said before, Bezos’s support for a corporate tax hike is meaningless if the company can continue to engage in egregious tax avoidance schemes.
And it’s not just Amazon; other Big Tech companies have resorted to similar “two-faced” tactics to weaken legislation. In April, an investigation by The Markup uncovered how some of the country’s most powerful technology companies, including Facebook and Google, advocated for mostly toothless privacy protection legislation in statehouses across the country — all with the intention of preempting state lawmakers from taking stronger action in the future.
Now with the prospect of a comprehensive consumer protection measure being signed into law, Congress must resist Amazon’s arm twisting. Counterfeits are far too serious of a threat, and watered-down legislation will fall short of creating the bold transparency measures that are desperately needed. Online counterfeiters have been known to peddle toys and children’s products, putting those most vulnerable in grave danger. These products fail to go through robust safety testing, meaning there is potential for serious health consequences.
But what many may not realize is the impact that counterfeits have on third-party sellers. As someone who works with Amazon sellers every day, I know exactly how legitimate businesses suffer when criminals sell fakes at below the market value. Small businesses are doing everything they can to fight these criminals — even if it means spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to do so.
Many of those selling fakes from the comfort of their own homes and hurting American businesses are overseas. According to the Department of Homeland Security, a staggering 85 percent of contraband items seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection came from Hong Kong and China. Nonetheless, Amazon’s marketplace has become a hub for China-based sellers.
Amazon has no problem touting all of the measures it has taken to clean up its third-party marketplace. But, as I have explained, it’s a common tactic of Amazon’s PR department to just share the numerator — and not the denominator. Thus, the $700 million it invests to fight fraud is pennies in the bucket when you consider that Amazon’s worldwide gross merchandise volume is estimated to be $490 billion.
It is critical that Congress advances the INFORM Consumers Act as it stands today. While I welcome Amazon’s endorsement of the common-sense measure — along with the other third-party marketplaces that recognize the benefits it would bring to e-commerce shopping — I can only hope it is sincere. Working behind the scenes to weaken this bill will be devastating to the millions of shoppers and sellers who have come to depend on Amazon’s third-party marketplace.
Jason Boyce is the author of “The Amazon Jungle” and founder of Amazon managed services agency, Avenue7Media. Previously, Boyce was an 18-year Top-200 Amazon seller.