It’s no secret that retailers who compete with Amazon for consumer dollars want regulators to take a closer look at the way their titanic, globe-spanning rival works. They’ve openly said so, many times. And yet, three major firms reportedly spent a great deal of time and effort obscuring their ties to a nonprofit that exists to rally support against Amazon.
The nonprofit, called the Free and Fair Markets Initiative, describes itself as “a nonprofit watchdog committed to scrutinizing Amazon’s harmful practices and promoting a fair, modern marketplace that works for all Americans.” According to a new report today from The Wall Street Journal, however, the group is funded by rivals, including Walmart, Oracle, and mall-owner Simon, who all have a strong financial interest in dethroning Amazon.
All three are competing fiercely with Amazon in their own market sectors. Walmart, the nation’s biggest big-box store, competes in retail, selling goods and groceries. Oracle competes in Internet services and has been fighting against Amazon, for example, to secure a $10 billion government contract. And Simon, the country’s largest mall owner, is at the front and center of the retail apocalypse and all the dead malls that retail bankruptcies leave in their wake.
FFMI declined to answer questions from the WSJ about its funders, backing, or structure, instead providing the newspaper with a statement saying that it is, “focusing on the substantive issues and putting a spotlight on the way companies like Amazon undermine the public good—something that media outlets, activists, and politicians in both parties are also doing with increasing frequency.”
Astroturf, covering up real concerns
Alliances and coalitions form all the time to agitate against something like a major merger, but the Journal notes that it is “rare” for an entire nonprofit group “to be created for the sole purpose of going after a single firm,” calling the formation of FFMI, “an indication of the degree to which competing companies have coalesced to counter the growing and accumulated power of Amazon and how far competitors are increasingly willing to go to counter-strike.”
But while FFMI might be as fake a “grassroots” organization as ever there was, the growing opposition to Amazon is very real. Genuine nonprofits, such as the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, have a years-long history of opposition to Amazon’s tactics. Community activism in New York City led Amazon to scrap its plans to open a secondary headquarters office location in Queens. And retail trade groups have openly pushed for federal regulators to launch antitrust investigations against the company. Dozens of media reports in recent months have also highlighted privacy and competition issues with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, Ring home surveillance business, and in-house logistics and delivery business.
The pressure, it seems, is working. The Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission are both working on big tech antitrust investigations, focusing on Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Congress is also digging into the way all four companies use their market power and recently asked for a massive trove of documentation from the company about its business practices.