We persisted through Elizabeth Warren’s four-hour selfie marathon to ask about Amazon and big tech

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren and a small portion of the selfie line that awaited her in Seattle on Sunday afternoon. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren notched a tech milestone during her Seattle campaign stop Sunday afternoon — posing for the 50,000th selfie in her bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. But appearing just a few blocks from Amazon’s headquarters and major Google and Facebook engineering centers, she was surprisingly quiet on a more substantive tech issue: her call to break up big tech companies.

Delivering her standard stump speech to an estimated 15,000 people at Seattle Center, Warren made general references to the need for stronger antitrust enforcement — repeating her call for “big structural change” to make sure the economy is serving middle-class families, not the corporate interests of giant drug and oil companies.

But not once during her public remarks, or during the media scrum afterward, did she specifically mention Amazon (or tech in general) in the context of antitrust or regulatory issues.

Given the waves Warren made with her call to “break up Big Tech,” it seemed like a missed opportunity to address the subject in a place with a huge stake in the issue, on all sides. The crowd was full of people who work in tech, from startups to giant companies, and it’s a region where the meteoric growth of the tech industry has impacted the economy for better and for worse.

So GeekWire decided to give Warren another chance. We stood by for more than four hours as the indefatigable candidate followed through on her commitment to take a selfie with every single person at the event who wanted one. As the sun set on the Space Needle, we walked alongside Warren (with the consent of her campaign staff) and asked her to address the topic specifically for the first time that day.

GeekWire: We’re just a few blocks here from Amazon. What’s your message to employees of Amazon and other tech companies, that might worry about the impact of some of your policies on their jobs, their companies and US innovation?

Elizabeth Warren: Breaking up big tech does not mean fewer jobs. There’s still the work that has to be done, but it does mean that we’ve got to have a fairer marketplace. You know, look, Amazon, for example, they run this marketplace that’s now 49 percent of online sales. Um, and at the same time they go compete on businesses and they’re collecting all the information from running the platform and then taking advantage of that information to nudge out other small businesses. That don’t help competition and it doesn’t help jobs. So the way I see this is, break those two things apart. Let the platform be one business. It’s kinda like in baseball. You can be the umpire or you can own one of the teams, but you don’t get to be the umpire and own the teams. So let’s pull those two things apart, keep the platform going and let Amazon run as many businesses as they want, but not with the advantage of having sucked all the information out from the platform. So that’s what’s key for me.

GW: We are just a very close to Amazon here. I was surprised you didn’t address that specifically. What would be your message for Jeff Bezos and Amazon?

Warren: I think it’s time to break ’em up — enforce the antitrust laws, and we’ve got to look at the antitrust laws in terms of the world we have today. This online platform really creates an opportunity that Amazon has taken advantage of and it’s hurt a lot of little tiny businesses and startup businesses and small businesses and medium size businesses that can’t compete with a giant like Amazon that is sucking information out of every transaction. Information is today’s comparative advantage and Amazon shouldn’t be able to suck it all up and then dominate every single marketplace in America.

The 49 percent figure is a reference to an eMarketer estimate of Amazon’s share of U.S. online retail sales. (Update: eMarketer has since revised its estimate to 38 percent.) In its past statements, Amazon has sought to frame the discussion in the context of the overall market for retail sales, both online and in physical stores, and by that measure the company says it represents less than 1 percent of global retail sales and less than 4 percent of U.S. retail sales.

Warren clearly had her talking points down on the issue, but we were still left scratching our heads over the fact that she hadn’t seized the opportunity to elevate her concerns at the stop in Amazon’s neighborhood.

So we squeezed in one more question before she had to go: “Did you think about being more specific and going after them today, here in their backyard?”

“Not particularly,” Warren said. “I mean, I was here to talk about why I’m running for president. … I at least had the passing reference to the fact that we’ve got to break up the big companies. We’ve got to enforce our antitrust laws.”

However, she added, there’s “a lot of stuff we’ve gotta do.”

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