with Aaron Schaffer

Sen. Elizabeth Warren is calling for federal regulators to look into Amazon’s handling of mask sales, warning that the company’s algorithms might be misleading consumers.

The Democrat from Massachusetts accused the company of having deceptive search results and not providing customers enough information to ensure the masks it sells have received authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. She wants the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department to investigate the matter, potentially adding to the e-commerce giant’s regulatory problems. 

“I am concerned that Amazon’s policies and procedures appear to be increasing risks for many individuals that are purchasing COVID-19 masks and other protective gear to protect themselves and their communities,” she wrote in a letter addressed to Attorney General Merrick Garland and FTC Chair Lina Khan. 

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The senator’s letter highlights mounting federal scrutiny of Amazon. 

It underscores how the e-commerce giant’s new chief executive, Andy Jassy, faces thorny political problems on multiple fronts, ranging from antitrust issues to its treatment of workers to quality control of products. Two weeks ago, Warren called for the FTC to probe the company’s acquisition of MGM. 

The senator’s letter also comes just weeks after Khan, a prominent Amazon critic, was sworn in to helm the FTC. The company has called for her to be recused from overseeing antitrust matters related to  Amazon. 

Warren's call follows an investigation by her staff earlier this year.

Warren’s staff found that Amazon promoted products without FDA authorization, even when people specifically searched for those terms. Her staff in March searched for “KN95 Mask FDA Approved," and received 436 results. But in the first 22 on the first page, at least two appeared to not actually have approval from the FDA. One of those products even appeared at the top of search results as a “sponsored product,” even though it didn't describe itself as FDA-approved.

“Because sponsored products appear alongside search results specifically responsive to the query, with only a small notation that they are sponsored, customers may be unwittingly directed to non-FDA authorized masks,” Warren wrote. 

The probe also found that only seven of the company’s top 22 search results for KN95 masks clearly denote they have received authorization.

Warren previously raised these issues in a letter to Amazon, but she was dissatisfied with the company’s response. She writes that Amazon is “failing to take accountability for the concerns raised by the results of my staff’s survey.”

“In particular, the information the company provided in response to my queries indicates that its methods may actively mislead consumers who are seeking FDA authorized products,” she said. 

She wants the agencies to use the authorities they were granted during the pandemic to ensure that people weren’t profiting off misleading sales related to the pandemic. 

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The company said in an April letter to Warren that it is “committed to keeping our store safe and providing accurate and transparent information to our customers.” The company said it had no mechanism to prevent products that don't have FDA approval from appearing in sponsored or similar products. "We give customers a variety of options to make the right
choice for their shopping needs," the company wrote. 

Warren’s letter comes as mask mandates are being relaxed around the country. 

Warren writes that federal authorities, however, should still take action to protect unvaccinated Americans, especially children under age 12.

“It is critical that individuals be able to obtain masks and other [personal protective equipment] that meets appropriate requirements,” she writes.

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Richard Branson flew to the edge of space, ushering in a new era of private spaceflight.
Billionaire Richard Branson on July 11 flew more than 50 miles above the New Mexico desert in the vehicle’s first fully crewed test flight to the edge of space. (Reuters)

The British billionaire, his three crewmates and two pilots got a glimpse of Earth from more than 50 miles up before they landed in New Mexico, Christian Davenport reports. The launch event was a splashy, commercial plug for Virgin Galactic, which Branson founded.

The trip comes amid a race to space by private companies headed by tech entrepreneurs such as Tesla chief executive Elon Musk and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post. Branson beat Bezos to space by nine days after his flight was moved up

Tech trade groups blasted a wide-ranging Biden executive order on competition.

The executive order, which was packed with dozens of initiatives, looks critically at the technology industry and encourages regulators to home in on data and surveillance practices by tech giants, as my colleagues Jeff Stein, Aaron Gregg and I reported. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, CTIA, NetChoice, NCTA the Internet & Television Association and TechNet criticized the order, with some calling it a dramatic government overreach. 

“By backing hard-left proposals, like nominating Lina Khan to the FTC and Rep. Cicilline’s antitrust legislation, anti-tech Republicans bear responsibility for the damage that will result from importing a European-style antitrust framework to all sections of the American economy,” Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel of NetChoice, said in a statement.

The order has a coalition of supporters, however. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who leads the Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, called it “groundbreaking” and said it would help restore competition to important parts of the economy. Digital rights and anti-monopoly groups such as New America’s Open Technology Institute, Public Knowledge, the American Economic Liberties Project and Fight For The Future also praised it. The Economic Innovation Group, which was founded by tech industry entrepreneurs including Napster co-founder Sean Parker, also praised provisions in the order seeking to rein in noncompete clauses, which are prevalent in the technology industry.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is set to take the stand before a Delaware court as early as today.

Musk, one of the world’s richest men, will have to defend the propriety of a $2.6 billion merger between Tesla and rooftop solar installer SolarCity, the Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Elliott and Dave Michaels report. Musk chaired both companies at the time of the merger, leading critics of the deal to call it a bailout of Musk’s interests.

If Musk loses to the plaintiffs in the case, which include pension funds that owned Tesla stock, he could be forced to pay back money to Tesla. That could amount to a massive payment if a Delaware judge finds that SolarCity wasn’t worth anything at the time of the acquisition.

Rant and rave

News Corporations news aggregator, Knewz, is no more. The New York Times’s Taylor Lorenz:

The Verges Dieter Bohn:

NBC News Digitals Jason Abbruzzese and the New York Times’s Erin Griffith:

Inside the industry

Trending

Mentions

  • Sharon Bradford Franklin, the former executive director of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, has joined the Center for Democracy & Technology as the co-director of its Security & Surveillance Project.

Daybook

  • European Commission Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager discusses efforts to regulate the technology industry at a Washington Post Live event today at 10:15 a.m.
  • A House Judiciary Committee panel holds a hearing on federal law enforcement agencies’ use of facial recognition technology at 10 a.m. Tuesday.
  • Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo speaks at a Washington Post Live event at 10:15 a.m. Tuesday.
  • The Atlantic Council hosts an event on the international negotiations over digital taxes at 9 a.m. Wednesday.
  • The Internet Governance Forum USA conference kicks off at 11:15 a.m. on July 14 with a keynote by Doreen Bogdan-Martin, the director of the International Telecommunication Union’s Telecommunication Development Bureau.

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