Jan 10, 2019

Axios Login

Well, I am back from the Consumer Electronics Show. Unfortunately my biggest souvenir from Las Vegas is a hacking cough. That said, I did win $35 at blackjack.

And thanks to the Axios tech team for all their help with today's Login.

1 big thing: Regulators eye Amazon house brands

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

By selling more products of its own, Amazon is becoming a competitor to the outside manufacturers it hosts on its platform — and that's worrying regulators around the world, Axios' David McCabe reports.

Driving the news: Amazon built a robust business as a participant in its own marketplace when it saw growth stall in stateside e-commerce, which is why holiday shoppers might have seen Amazon-owned brands like Happy Belly for food or Solimo for household goods.

Critics say Amazon uses its sales data to find fruitful areas where it can produce generic versions of already-popular products — then favors its own brands when customers search for a certain item.

By the numbers: Amazon currently has 135 private-label brands, and it has deals to sell another 332 brands exclusively around the world, according to a database maintained by TJI Research.

The big picture: Regulators in major overseas markets for Amazon have already taken aim at its efforts.

  • E-commerce rules going into effect next month in India appear to forbid a marketplace like Amazon — or Walmart-owned Flipkart — from selling products it has a stake in and to ban exclusivity deals.
  • European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager launched a preliminary look at Amazon's practice of using its data to build its private-label business last year, although a spokesperson said in an email that the EU has not yet begun a formal probe.

In Washington, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren — who's running for the White House — has expressed concerns about Amazon’s growing role as a seller on its own platform.

  • “You got to pick one business or the other, baby,” Warren said in September. “You want to be a competitor, be a competitor, that’s great. You want to be the platform provider, that is a different function.”

Yes, but: It could be hard for regulators to crack down on Amazon’s in-house product efforts in the U.S., where most anticompetitive practices are ruled illegal only when consumers are hurt — often by a price increase.

The other side: Amazon tells Axios that selling private-label products is a standard practice in retail that broadens selection for customers. It says third-party sellers continue to do well on its platform.

What’s next? Amazon watchers say the company has accelerated its efforts to sell its own products or products it markets exclusively.

  • SunTrust Robinson Humphrey analysts Youssef Squali and Naved Khan estimated in June that private label product sales would generate $7.5 billion for Amazon in 2018, a significant increase from their estimate for 2017.

Go deeper: Read David's full story here.

2. Retro rules at CES

Photo: Ina Fried/Axios

While CES is all about the latest and greatest in technology, there was a significant retro theme on display at a number of the booths this year.

First, there was a slew of retro products, the most surprising of which was a cassette boombox from Ion. It's also a bluetooth speaker, but it has a cassette player and analog dial AM/FM radio as well.

Second, there were brands looking to stage a comeback. There were booths pitching names like Polaroid and Kodak. Other brands of yesteryear were found tucked inside the booths of lesser known electronics firms who had licensed the brand.

  • A Brooklyn company called Southern Telecom has the U.S. and Canadian rights to the old PC brand Packard Bell. The company started 25 years ago selling landline phones, but these days it sells a range of electronics, including audio gear for Sharper Image and Brookstone.
  • In a hybrid move, Kenwood retrofitted the latest automotive technology into a 1973 Plymouth Barracuda.

The bottom line: Even techies have a soft spot for the gadgets and brands of their youth — or, in some cases, their parents' youth.

3. Shutdown halts FCC device approvals

Another potential casualty of the government shutdown — tech product launches.

Gazillions of products get announced each year at CES. But, as Axios' Kim Hart reports, the Federal Communications Commission — the agency tasked with authorizing new devices using radio frequencies — is on furlough, along with the rest of the federal government.

How it works: There’s a trade show exemption that allows companies to discuss or announce products even if they haven’t been formally approved by the FCC. But they can’t be marketed or sold without that authorization.

  • Devices needing FCC approval include cellphones as well as Internet of Things products such as smart appliances or smart home gadgets.

What's happening: As an independent agency with alternative funding mechanisms, the FCC stayed open longer than many other agencies. It suspended operations on Jan. 3.

  • However, the agency says a small staff will continue work related to "the protection of life and property" — which could include things like 911 outages or weather-related communications disruptions.
  • And, up to 200 employees are continuing work on spectrum auctions, which is funded by auction proceeds.
  • All told, almost 20% of the FCC's workers have been retained for various essential purposes without pay or are being paid via funding other than the lapsed appropriations.

What isn't happening: In addition to product authorizations, other suspended activities include work on consumer complaints, enforcement actions and licensing proceedings.

  • The FCC also reviews major deals — like the pending merger of Sprint and T-Mobile — and those reviews have also stopped.
  • "It does stifle business opportunity and strategy," says Marc Martin, chair of the communications practice at law firm Perkins Coie.
  • Martin notes that some of his clients are annoyed by the shutdown disruption to business plans: "Companies rely on government timelines for things to get resolved."
4. Twitter's new way to watch the NBA

Twitter wants to give sports fans more games to watch in real time, even if it can't air them as they're shown on TV.

What's new: At CES on Wednesday, it announced a deal with the NBA and Turner Sports that will let users vote to choose a player to watch for part of the game via an isolated camera feed displayed on Twitter.

  • The deal is an experiment, but it has big implications for the future of sports fandom and business, Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

How it works: Users watching Thursday night basketball games on TNT will vote on a player during the first half of the game that they wish to follow for the second half using Twitter's isolated camera feed.

  • No announcers, wide-shots of the team or crowd angles will stream. The focus will remain on the selected player doing everything from talking to refs to tying his shoes.
  • The voting takes place through Twitter via the @NBAonTNT account.
  • The experiment will begin in February and will last for 20 Thursday night games thereafter.

My thought bubble: As a die-hard sports fan, this seems more like a second screen thing than a primary way to watch a game.

The big picture: The NBA has been a leader among sports leagues in finding new ways to use technology, including social media and virtual reality.

Between the lines: The move suggests that the NBA sees the urgency in finding ways to bring its content and culture to younger audiences who aren't going to watch games live on TV.

Be smart: It's expected that the most popular players will win the camera close-up. This could dramatically empower players to embrace stardom over their own teams, which will help them land individual sponsorships, like sneaker deals.

  • But it could also cause problems for those franchises who emphasize teamwork.

The bottom line: The move, if successful, will be mutually beneficial for Twitter, the NBA and Turner Sports, which is a hard trifecta to pull off these days.

Go deeper: Read Sara's full story.

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • CES continues on through Friday without me. Carry on gadget lovers.

Trading Places


  • T-Mobile reported record Q4 customer numbers, adding 2.4 million net subscribers. (T-Mobile)
  • The Wall Street Journal details the conservative groups Facebook and Twitter are increasingly consulting over content moderation decisions.
  • A study concluded that those over 65 spread the most fake news. (The Verge)
  • Scooter startup Bird is raising $300 million in a round led by Fidelity. (Axios)
  • Goodbye AT&T Park. Hello Oracle Park. The San Francisco Giants' stadium will soon have a new name and sponsor. (San Francisco Business Times)
6. After you Login

Want to see a black hole devour a nearby star? Of course you do.