The world’s richest man is spending a billion dollars a year helping to launch the human race into space. Next to that goal, the threat of a government antitrust investigation into his trillion-dollar company is no big deal.
That was the impression Jeff Bezos gave at the Wired 25 summit in San Francisco Monday. In an unscheduled interview, Bezos enthused about his space startup Blue Origin — but also insisted he was in favor of the government turning up the heat on Amazon, which some observers say is a monopoly that needs to be broken up.
“All large institutions should be scrutinized,” Bezos said in an unusually subdued tone. “It makes sense to me.” He added that he had been preparing his managers for an investigation he views as inevitable.
“I preach this inside Amazon: ‘This is going to happen, it’s normal, don’t take it personally,'” Bezos revealed. As to what his executives should do about it? “Conduct yourself in such a way that when you are scrutinized, you pass with flying colors.”
That open-book approach is markedly different to the one taken 20 years ago by Bezos’ fellow Seattleite, Bill Gates, when he was the world’s richest man facing down a federal investigation.
After Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser helped drive rival Netscape out of business, Gates continued to insist that his company needed no oversight. After a three-year antitrust case, a federal judge imposed a number of business restrictions on Microsoft that allowed competitors to flourish.
Last month, the European Union began what its antitrust commissioner called an “initial investigation” into whether Amazon was unfairly using third-party merchant data to inform its own e-commerce decisions.
There are antitrust rumblings in the U.S., too — and not just because Donald Trump has a beef with Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post. This summer, the Federal Trade Commission hired one of the legal world’s strongest proponents of treating Amazon as a retail monopoly and breaking it up, the way the U.S. government did with Standard Oil.
In the meantime, Bezos appears to be striking a conciliatory note. Earlier this month, Amazon announced it would pay all its U.S. employees a minimum wage of $15 — something activists such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders had been calling for.
On stage at the Wired summit, Bezos insisted that he didn’t like “winner-takes-all industries.” That was in the context of Blue Origin, which he hopes will enable “thousands of companies” in the space business, including a new generation of entrepreneurs that he called “the [Mark] Zuckerbergs of space.”
But in retail, with its aggressively small profit margins, Amazon is increasingly becoming the winner that took all. Whether the future Zuckerbergs of e-commerce can still innovate may depend on whether antitrust regulators can find some way to break its stranglehold — and just how cool Bezos really is with those moves.