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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Amazon is mounting a vigorous defense against the charge that it stifles competition, with founder Jeff Bezos pushing back on critics in his annual shareholder letter and the company modifying allegedly anti-competitive practices in recent months.

The big picture: The top antitrust regulator in the European Union has said her probe of Amazon is “advancing,” while lawmakers, including some presidential candidates, hammer the company in the United States.

Driving the news: In Bezos' annual letter to stockholders Thursday, the Amazon CEO countered two lines of criticism: that his company is strong-arming third-party sellers on its platform, and that it has monopolistic power over the market.

  • “Third-party sellers are kicking our first party butt. Badly,” Bezos' letter said. It pointed to Amazon's investment in Fulfillment by Amazon and the Prime program as "the very best selling tools we could imagine and build" for its third-party merchants.
  • “Amazon today remains a small player in global retail," the letter said in another section. "We represent a low single-digit percentage of the retail market, and there are much larger retailers in every country where we operate. And that’s largely because nearly 90% of retail remains offline."
  • “It certainly looks like they’re concerned about the growing scrutiny on their market power,” said Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a longtime critic of the company, who also argued Bezos was downplaying Amazon's power over its marketplace.

Background: Amazon’s critics have ramped up their pressure in recent years, saying the company uses its scale to muscle out competitors in a growing array of businesses.

  • In a 2017 law review article, a then-law student named Lina Khan traced how the company had become a dominant player without running afoul of current antitrust legal standards in the United States.
  • Last year, European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager announced she was probing the company's dual role running a marketplace for third-party sellers and competing against them with its own private label products. (Amazon maintains its private labels constitute a tiny percentage of sales.)
  • Now, Amazon is a regular target for progressives. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California) told Axios in January, around the time she launched her presidential campaign, that "Amazon should be subject to oversight that protects the dignity of workers and ensures fair competition."
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) released a plan in March to break up Amazon and other tech giants and ban marketplace platforms from selling products on their own service.

Amazon has also pulled back on some practices that have put the firm in the crosshairs of regulators.

  • In March, Amazon stopped banning third-party merchants in the United States from offering lower prices on other sales platforms, after Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) raised concerns about this practice, which was discontinued in Europe under regulatory scrutiny in 2013.
  • It has also stopped a series of special promotions for the private-label products business Warren has criticized on the campaign trail, according to CNBC, although it told the outlet they had been experimental.

"I'm glad Amazon pulled back on some anti-competitive behaviors after I raised concerns about their business model, but I'm still deeply concerned that their own private-label sales on their platform are projected to hit $25 billion by 2022," said Warren in a statement.

  • "That's why we need to separate the Amazon platform from their retail operations."

Go deeper

1 hour ago - World

Army to award Purple Hearts to troops injured in Iran missile attack

Damage at Ain al-Asad military airbase housing U.S. and other foreign troops in the western Iraqi province of Anbar in January 2020. Photo: Ayman Henna/AFP via Getty Images

The Army has approved 39 more Purple Hearts for U.S. soldiers wounded in an Iranian military ballistic missile attack on an Iraq base in January 2020, the Army Times first reported Wednesday.

Why it matters: Most of these soldiers sustained brain injuries, per the Army Times. Then-President Trump dismissed their injuries at the time as "headaches" and "not very serious," sparking backlash from some veterans groups.

Scoop: U.S. begins denying Afghan immigrants

Afghan refugees on a bus bound for temporary housing after arriving in Greece. Photo: Byron Smith/Getty Images

The Biden administration has begun issuing denials to Afghans seeking to emigrate to the United States through the humanitarian parole process, after a system that typically processes 2,000 applications annually has been flooded with more than 30,000.

Why it matters: Afghans face steeper odds and longer processes for escaping to the U.S., despite the earlier sweeping efforts by the Biden administration to assist its allies. Immigration lawyers and advocacy groups say the government has set untenable barriers to a safe haven in the U.S.

4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Dems invoke Robert Byrd to sell Manchin on Senate rules changes

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: Diana Walker, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A small group of Senate Democrats is privately invoking the legacy of late West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd in an effort to sway Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to support their plans to change the chamber's rules, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Manchin — who holds Byrd's Senate seat — has often referenced his predecessor's strong moral conviction and insistence on preserving the Senate as an institution, as justification for some of his tough positions.

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