Jeff Bezos, the press-shy billionaire, to face the harsh spotlight of Congress

The Amazon boss is the only tech CEO appearing Wednesday who hasn't yet sat before a public hearing in Congress.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ben Fox Rubin
4 min read

Bezos speaks to the media on Amazon's sustainability efforts in September 2019 in Washington, DC.

Eric Baradat / AFP/Getty Images

After years of avoiding the public eye, Jeff Bezos is being pushed onto a high-profile stage: Congress.

Along with three other tech CEOs -- Apple's Tim Cook, Alphabet's Sundar Pichai and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg -- Bezos is reluctantly appearing on Wednesday before a House of Representatives subcommittee that's investigating the power of big tech companies. The hearing, which will be Bezos' debut before lawmakers, is part of a 13-month investigation by the House's antitrust subcommittee into the tech platforms. It follows a swirl of antitrust investigations by the Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission, state attorneys general and the European Union.

Bezos' participation comes despite his well-known aversion to speaking publicly, instead allowing his lieutenants to defend his company on Twitter, at hearings and in TV interviews. Amazon's CEO has carefully managed the few events he's participated in, ensuring kid glove treatment. Handling Congress, however, will be far tougher. Politicians are often more interested in point-scoring than fact-finding. Bezos will have to be a quick study.

Despite the company's power and his individual wealth -- he's the richest person in the world -- Bezos will join the questioning as a newcomer. The other CEOs have made congressional appearances; Zuckerberg, the youngest, has made three, while Cook and Pichai have made one each. 

Watch this: Amazon's Bezos says there's room in retail for multiple winners

There's no question that Amazon is the king of its corner of the internet. Governments and regulators worry its dominance could squash competition, narrow choices and prevent innovation. Some lawmakers have called for breaking up Amazon. Those issues, as well as Amazon's poor treatment of its warehouse workers, could come up during the hearing.

"How do we structure the online market? How do we govern the online market in ways that ensure open and fair competition?" asked Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and a longtime critic of Amazon. "I'm looking less to him for those answers and more to members of Congress, and ultimately the American people."

Amazon declined to comment for this story.

Questioning will almost assuredly focus on Amazon's private label business, in which the retailer sells its own versions of batteries, diapers and snacks on its website. House members have expressed concerns that Amazon may unfairly benefit from both operating its platform and being a seller on it, potentially directing consumers to its own products and away from independent merchants on its site. 

Watch this: Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google to be grilled by Congress

Elected officials worry that Amazon uses internal sales information of these smaller sellers against them to offer its own branded goods. The strongest evidence this is happening came from an April story in The Wall Street Journal, which reported Amazon private-label workers were pulling data to decide on what products to launch. Amazon has said such actions are against its policies and it started an investigation into these claims. The company hasn't given an update on the probe.

Bezos was called to testify following the Journal story, and he initially resisted the requests. The company offered to send someone else to speak on its behalf. Rep. David Cicilline, who chairs the subcommittee, threatened to subpoena the Amazon boss. Bezos relented.

Bezos has been press-shy for years. He's carefully cultivated a public persona as a space- and science-loving visionary, a sort of uber-nerd, in addition to industry titan. He was only forced out of his turtle shell last year, when a high-profile divorce, an extramarital affair and a blackmail plot erased the image of a seemingly stable and quiet personal life.

Since then, Bezos has been seen much more often in the tabloids. But he hasn't changed his approach to the press. In public appearances, Bezos has typically stuck to talking points. He rarely riffs. Don't expect anything different at the hearing. The potential for gaffes is low. 

When he has given interviews, they've been in friendly settings, such as the casual chat he participated in at his company's re:MARS conference last year. His conversation partner: an Amazon employee. There was little chance the interview would go awry (though an animal rights protester did temporarily disrupt it). His last major interview with a journalist was in 2018, with Wired's Steven Levy, but the piece focused on Bezos' space-exploration efforts with his Blue Origin startup.

When he does talk publicly, Bezos often isn't discussing Amazon. He used major public appearances last year to reveal a Blue Origin moon lander and a new program called the Climate Pledge, both in Washington DC. He didn't take questions from reporters at the Blue Origin event or at re:MARS.

Still, Bezos has shown he can handle himself in a challenging setting, which the antitrust subcommittee is sure to be. Six years ago, he consented to an interview with Henry Blodget of Business Insider. The Amazon boss might have expected Blodget to go easy on him; Bezos was an investor in the publication. But Blodget hammered away at the CEO, asking about the e-retailer's seemingly out-of-control spending. Bezos gamely defended his positions.

Now we'll see if he can do the same with Congress.