Amazon's Roomba acquisition gets caught on FTC's rug

The Wrath of Khan

America's Federal Trade Commission is investigating Amazon's proposed acquisition of iRobot, the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner maker, and has asked for more information about the deal from the technology pair.

Amazon announced plans to absorb iRobot last month in an all-cash deal worth $1.7 billion. The acquisition isn't surprising given the ecommerce giant has been steadily expanding its home electronics empire, offering gear from Amazon Alexa smart speakers to Ring security doorbell cameras.

And who could forget the robot butler dubbed Astro that nearly a year on from its launch still appears to be available by invite only. No wonder Amazon wants Roomba's secrets.

The iRobot takeover, however, is being scrutinized by the FTC. The regulator this week asked Amazon and its target to hand over more details about the planned merger, a move that could stall the deal for months and months as FTC staff pore over the filings. The takeover is subject to the watchdog's approval.

This is after pro-privacy campaigners sent a public letter to the watchdog urging officials to block the deal.

"In connection with the merger, iRobot and Amazon filed notification and report forms under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 with the US Federal Trade Commission (and the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice on August 19, 2022," iRobot noted in an SEC filing on Tuesday.

"On September 19, 2022, iRobot and Amazon each received a request for additional information and documentary materials from the FTC in connection with the FTC's review of the merger. The second request is a next step in the regulatory review process."

The open letter – penned by Fight for the Future, a nonprofit digital rights advocacy organization, and its pals – claimed that if the acquisition is approved, Amazon will continue to dominate the smart home devices market to the detriment of smaller businesses as well as consumers.

Not only that, but Amazon will own a company that sells robots that map out and explore people's houses and apartments.

"There is no more private space than the home. Yet with this acquisition, Amazon stands to gain access to extremely intimate facts about our most private spaces that are not available through other means, or to other competitors," the letter, dated September 9, reads.

"This information goes beyond home floor plans, and includes highly detailed information about the interior of consumer homes and lifestyle of the inhabitants. Giving Amazon access to this kind of private information through this acquisition hurts consumers.

Once the data is collected there is no way to prevent its use for even more intrusive surveillance

"Amazon uses data not only to further its anti-competitive goals as described in further detail above, but also to feed data-hungry algorithms that attempt to predict and shape the behavior of individual consumers. Far from being neutral pieces of computer code, these algorithms, when paired with Amazon's world-wide impact, exacerbate racist and gender-biased systems of oppression.

"The iRobot acquisition brings these risks into our homes, and once the data is collected there is no way to prevent its use for even more intrusive surveillance as well as other anti-competitive behaviors."

The FTC also launched a probe into Amazon's acquisition of One Medical earlier this month. The web giant has a thorny relationship with the trade regulator, especially after Big Tech arch-critic Lina Khan was appointed as the commission's chairwoman. Khan wrote a highly cited paper [PDF] for the Yale Law Journal that focused on antitrust concerns with Amazon. 

Amazon and iRobot declined to comment. ®

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