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It’s one of the elemental questions about big technology companies: Do they have so much sway that what would be normal behavior for typical companies is no longer innocuous?
ProPublica recently wrote the latest in a string of articles about Amazon and the products it makes to sell on its site. You probably know about AmazonBasics for batteries or cleaning rags, but there are several hundred thousand Amazon products under dozens of brand names. The company is finding ways to subtly nudge people to buy the in-house merchandise.
This isn’t so different from what stores like Walmart and Target do to get you to buy their own brands of cereal or T-shirts. The question is whether internet powerhouses are so different from retail stores that when they play by the old rules, it’s not OK anymore.
The difference between Amazon and Walmart, which sells far more merchandise, is how much more Amazon knows about what happens on its digital shelves than its competitors do.
Walmart doesn’t usually know that you’ve been in the store three times this month to browse for mattresses, but Amazon knows when you’re hunting around — on its own site and often elsewhere online, too.
Amazon might also watch what you’re buying from other companies and then use that information to more effectively make a competing version. The Wall Street Journal reported that it did this with car-trunk organizers, for example, in apparent violation of the company’s rules.
Amazon’s site has become so popular that it’s now the starting point for the biggest chunk of Americans shopping online. This enables it to have the best information on what products sell or don’t online and at what prices. Amazon’s search box is a window into our desires, and many product manufacturers believe they can’t exist without selling on Amazon.
That data and heft arm Amazon with the information it needs to more effectively steer people to its products.
Amazon is not a normal store. It’s the infinite Everything Store with infinite information. That’s why the company’s marketing pitches for its own products are unlike any other form of advertising.
Those concerns are one reason regulators in the European Union are preparing to charge Amazon with violating antitrust rules, and why the authorities in the United States are investigating whether Amazon is abusing its power by giving itself a leg up over other companies that sell their products on its site.
To Amazon and its defenders, this feels unfair. Amazon is just doing what stores have always done — just better.
This question about whether technology superpowers can play fair by the tried and true rules is a central legal, economic and ethical confrontation of our age.
It’s not just about whether Google is too big to be dethroned or Facebook is bad at policing speech on its online hangout. The conundrum is whether these giants are so mighty that they can’t operate fairly and effectively.
Curtailing facial recognition doesn’t require Congress
When Amazon flexes its power, part two.
Amazon said Wednesday that it was putting a one-year pause on letting the police use its facial recognition technology, called Rekognition, and said it hoped that would give Congress time to pass regulations on its use.
Amazon didn’t give a reason, but the move comes amid nationwide protests against biased policing. Civil liberties advocates have been concerned that facial recognition misidentifies people with darker skin, is prone to overuse, and reinforces bias against black people.
Amazon had previously refused requests from privacy advocates to monitor whether law enforcement agencies were using Rekognition ethically.
IBM, which is a smaller supplier of facial recognition technology, said this week that it would stop its work on the technology.
This is another side of the power of these tech companies. A handful of big companies are so influential that their decisions alone can put the brakes on a divisive technology.
At times, this may lead to decisions you support. If you worry that facial recognition software is dangerous, then you’re probably relieved that Amazon, IBM and other companies have decided that their software is too flawed or prone to misuse to be used by the police without legal guidelines. (There will, of course, always be other companies that sell facial recognition.)
Even when I write about the dangers of powerful technology gatekeepers, I know we sometimes want them to flex their power.
I want Google and Facebook to push accurate information about the coronavirus to the people hanging out inside their digital walls. When Amazon cracks down on selling Nazi-themed books, it becomes much harder for people to buy them.
We might agree with these companies’ decisions or not. Either way, choices by a few big companies can affect millions of people, and the companies can move faster than governments can write laws. Their rules effectively serve as public policy.
We need to figure out how to thread the needle between demanding that companies use their power, and being worried when they do.
Before we go …
Not a lot of love for Facebook: Joe Biden’s presidential campaign plans to urge its supporters to demand that Facebook strengthen its rules against misinformation and hold politicians accountable for harmful comments, my colleague Cecilia Kang writes. Her article is a reminder that both major party candidates for the U.S. presidency have been critical of how Facebook polices its hangouts — for different reasons. Generally, President Trump wants Facebook to have a lighter touch over screening posts, while Mr. Biden wants more intervention.
In a (saucy) response, Facebook said that elected leaders should be the ones to make the rules on important policy issues like appropriate political campaign messages.
“I know Goldfish and Fruit Gushers are dating.” Sit down and let my colleague Taylor Lorenz explain “Elite TikTok,” where kids and teenagers impersonate Vaseline, Burlington Coat Factory, and other corporations and products. The parody accounts sometimes pick fights with one another or couple up, and it’s all just intentionally bizarre chaos.
When the gatekeepers mistakenly enforce their rules: OneZero has an interesting dive into why hundreds of people who oppose white supremacy had their Facebook accounts temporarily suspended. They believe the company confused their subculture with neo-Nazi groups. Facebook said it reinstated the accounts.
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