Notably, this is a field where Amazon has already begun taking steps that help address complaints from politicians and regulators, and could end up being comfortable taking some more.
Earlier this week, a few days after The Washington Post reported that the FTC has been granted regulatory oversight of Jeff Bezos' firm, Recode reported that there are "three lines of questioning related to Amazon that the FTC has been pursuing" as it probes the e-commerce and public cloud giant. Specifically, Amazon's charging of higher fulfillment service fees for orders placed on third-party websites than ones placed on its own; the ties between Amazon's direct e-commerce business and its marketplace business; and the bundling of various services with Amazon Prime.
For the foreseeable future at least, any requirement that Amazon's fulfillment service (FBA) start charging the same price for orders placed on third-party sites as for similar orders placed on Amazon's own site is unlikely to do major harm. The lion's share of FBA activity is believed to involve orders placed on Amazon properties, with many marketplace sellers relying on the service to make sure their items can meet Amazon Prime's rapid-delivery requirements.
Moreover, while lower FBA fees for orders placed on third-party marketplaces might in theory give a boost to platforms such as eBay (EBAY) - Get Report and Walmart's (WMT) - Get Report marketplaces, Amazon would still have a lot of other competitive advantages to rely on, from Prime to its marketplace network effect to its customer support. And it's worth keeping in mind here that FBA services for orders placed on Amazon properties are believed to be a highly profitable business for Amazon.
The reported probe of Amazon's Prime bundling policies, meanwhile, is the kind of thing that sounds scary in theory -- obviously, if Amazon was required to stop bundling Prime Video, Prime Music and various other non-shipping services, it would be a major issue -- but is arguably a field where Amazon can make a strong defense of its actions. The company can point to a long list of rivals -- from Netflix (NFLX) - Get Report to Spotify (SPOT) - Get Report to Dropbox (DBX) - Get Report -- who are quite successful despite of the fact that they compete against services that are bundled with Prime.
In addition, at a time when over 60 million U.S. households are believed to have Amazon Prime subscriptions, it's probably not lost on the FTC that any major change to Amazon's Prime bundling policies would likely be met with a consumer backlash.
That leaves us with the reported investigation into the ties between Amazon's direct e-commerce and marketplace businesses. This is arguably a bigger concern, given that Amazon (though now getting nearly 60% of its global gross merchandise volume from marketplace sales) still does a huge amount of direct online sales in the U.S. and some -- such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) -- have gone as far as to argue that Amazon's direct e-commerce business should be split from its marketplace business.
It's worth pointing out, however, that Amazon has recently taken some steps that appear meant to address criticism about the ties between its direct and marketplace businesses. These include giving U.S. marketplace sellers the right to charge lower prices on other platforms for goods sold on Amazon, as well as paring back the promotion of private-label goods on its website. Also, given that one major point of criticism in this area has been Amazon's potential use of marketplace sales data to strengthen its direct e-commerce business, a deal under which Amazon agrees not to provide any sales data to its direct operations that individual marketplace sellers don't have access to could be enough to appease regulators.
And in the event that the FTC does go so far as to call for breaking up the two halves of Amazon's U.S. e-commerce operations, it will have a fight on its hands convincing courts and the public that such a move benefits consumers, given how tightly integrated they are both from a consumer service and an infrastructure standpoint.
To sum it up, while it's far from good news for Amazon that the FTC is reportedly engaging in a major regulatory probe of its practices, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic that major damage won't be done.