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SEATTLE : Ateam of Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigators has begun interviewing small businesses that sell products on Inc. to determine whether the e-commerce giant is using its market power to hurt competition.

Several attorneys and at least one economist have been conducting interviews that typically last about 90 minutes and cover a range of topics, according to three merchants. All were asked what percentage of revenue their businesses derive from Amazon versus other online marketplaces like Walmart Inc. and EBay Inc., suggesting regulators are sceptical about Amazon’s claims that shoppers and suppliers have real alternatives to the Seattle-based company. One merchant, Jaivin Karnani, said he was surprised the FTC returned his call the very next day.

The interviews indicate the agency is in the early stages of a sweeping probe to learn how Amazon works, spot practices that break the law and identify markets dominated by the company. The length of the interviews and the manpower devoted to examining Amazon point to a serious inquiry rather than investigators merely responding to complaints and going through the motions, antitrust experts say. “Early in an investigation, that’s a sign of staff doing a serious job," said Michael Kades, who spent 20 years at the FTC. “They’re spending lots of time with witnesses and trying to really understand what they’re saying."

Amazon hasn’t disclosed an investigation by the FTC, and the agency rarely confirms scrutiny of individual firms. But chairman Joe Simons told Bloomberg in August that he welcomed hearing from third-party merchants, who now sell more than half of items on Amazon.

Such private conversations are likely to yield far more insights into Amazon’s business than the public grilling of tech executives by Congressional committees.

Amazon declined to comment and pointed to a statement consumer business chief Jeff Wilke made in June when asked about reports that the FTC was looking into Amazon. The FTC declined to comment.

The probe is part of a broader examination of the control firms like Amazon, Google and Facebook have over the US economy. The FTC is also investigating Facebook while the justice department is probing Google.

Separately, 50 state attorneys general have announced an antitrust probe of Google.

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