It’s Amazon’s 20th Birthday! As Usual, I’m Being a Party PooperJuly 15, 2015
It’s Amazon’s 20th birthday today, and as usual, I’m being negative about them. (But hey, I’m wearing a party hat — that’s got to count for something!) Lots of us think of Amazon as a magical wizard who brings treats to our doorstep, but actually they’re pretty destructive. But in the words of Reading Rainbow, don’t take my word for it — there are a bunch of journalists from places like The New York Times, Forbes and The Atlantic who agree.
It’s Amazon’s birthday, but here are 20 people (and ideas) who aren’t invited to the party — people like readers and writers, but also Amazon’s own employees and the small businesses who make the stuff that Amazon sells. And some people we might not expect, like developers, artists, diaper-buying parents and even an English company that makes bath salts.
Who’s not invited to the Amazon birthday party? A lot of people, as it turns out:
In this New York Times article about Amazon, Paul Krugman explains how Amazon keeps prices low — by forcing producers to offer them low prices in the first place. In most cases, these prices are set fairly low already (because the U.S. is already a pretty competitive market and that drives prices down naturally), so producers are left with two options for giving Amazon the price they want: They can cut quality (hurting the consumer), or they can cut labor costs (getting rid of pesky advantages like “fair wages” and “quality of life” for their employees). This squeezing of small business owners and craftspeople is the way Walmart keeps prices low too — and it’s a big reason that both Walmart and Amazon force a lot of their suppliers and “partners” out of business, effectively cutting good jobs for skilled workers out of the U.S. economy and replacing them with a smaller number of jobs that aren’t permanent, aren’t well-paid, and are dangerous and unhealthy for the people who have to take them.
There are tons of blogs that detail the inhumane treatment of Amazon warehouse employees, but this New Republic article about Amazon points out that Amazon’s corporate staff aren’t paid all that well, either. In other words, it’s not just Amazon’s warehouse staff who don’t have quality jobs — most people who work there don’t. Since Amazon is a huge global employer, the way they treat people at all levels matters.
Amazon’s attempt to avoid paying taxes was pretty extreme, as these articles on Amazon from The Wall Street Journal and Columbia Journalism Review point out. They went as far as issuing employees business cards that lied about where they worked so no one could prove they were doing work in states where they traveled on business. (Because, if those states could prove Amazon was physically doing business in their states — which they were — Amazon could be required to pay tax there.) Amazon also denied the existence of a distribution center in Texas (that flew Amazon’s flag outside, along with the flags of Texas and the U.S.), and when Texas proved they were lying, they packed up and left the state entirely. That’s the same thing they did in California. And threatened to do in South Carolina and a bunch of other places, basically any other state that bothered to stand up to them and ask for the tax money that every other brick-and-mortar business has to pay.
Lush is a cosmetics company started by a mom and pop (who got pretty successful and started doing big business) in England. They wouldn’t sell to Amazon, and at first Amazon just advertised Lush anyway and then directed customers to different “similar” products. But eventually, as this article on Amazon from The Guardian points out, Amazon just straight up stole the name of the company, using “Lush” for their own brand of cosmetics. Amazon lost their court battle, and Lush responded by copywriting the name of Amazon’s U.K. CEO, Christopher North, and using it to market shower gel. (The product description: “Rich, thick and full of it.”)
In this Gawker article on Amazon, the author tells the story of shopping for diapers. The brand and size he wanted disappeared from Amazon, but it was still listed at Diapers.com, which is owned by Amazon. So he could still buy them — but he couldn’t use his Prime account to ship them, so he had to pay shipping separately. Is this the beginning of that bait-and-switch we’ve been hearing about, where Amazon cuts prices artificially low so it can control the market and then jack prices back up when it no longer has competitors? Probably!
This Bits article on Amazon’s publishing practices tells the tale of two political books listed by Amazon at the same time. Amazon was in a fight with their publishing group and Amazon wasn’t getting their way on price, so they punished customers, making books from that publisher difficult or even impossible to order through the site. (This also involved a lot of well-documented lying to customers, but that’s a story for another blog.) Anyway Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan complained about Amazon’s treatment of his book. Around the same time, the author of Sons of Wichita, a book critical of the conservative Koch brothers that was on the New York Times Bestseller list, also complained that his book was punished. Paul Ryan’s book was put on sale and discounted immediately, bringing it back to all-star Amazon status. What happened to Sons of Wichita? Amazon listed it at full price and claimed delivery would take five weeks. Was Paul Ryan’s book treated better because he was a politician, because he was a celebrity, or because he was a Republican? It doesn’t really matter which reason, because they’re all pretty dangerous for freedom of speech.
In this article by science fiction author Cory Doctorow on Amazon over at BoingBoing, we read the story of a Kindle owner whose entire library was sacrificed by Amazon. See, most Kindle readers think they’re buying ebooks, but Amazon considers those books rented and retains the right to pull them, delete them or lock a Kindle account without warning and mostly without reason. Amazon’s not to only company that does this, but not all ebook retailers do: In contrast, Kobo (the ebook reader available through your local bookstore, including the shop that I own) provides books both in Kobo format and as Adobe Digital Editions — meaning you can download a copy of every book you buy that’s not locked into one format — so you can still read it on another device if you ever switch from Kobo or lose access to your account.
When rumors surfaced late last year that Amazon was opening a brick-and-mortar store, it seemed like it might be a move in the direction of finally having to pay taxes and show the public how Amazon treats its workers, but this Wired article on Amazon speculates that the rumored Amazon brick-and-mortar is probably just a big warehouse for Amazon’s planned expansion into the grocery market, something Amazon has talked about for awhile but that wouldn’t be possible on a large scale without same-day delivery.
Remember that time Amazon’s employees were dropping of heat stroke so rapidly that the state had to keep ambulances outside at the ready because the company wouldn’t spring for air conditioning? Apparently summer isn’t the only season Amazon wants its employees to be immune to — workers at this factory profiled in The Morning Call’s story on Amazon were forced out of the building in freezing December temperatures without coats, left there for hours, and told they couldn’t go back into the building or even to their cars to keep warm (they were told to huddle together and use body heat for warmth). “They didn’t care about anybody standing outside freezing because they knew they could replace us the next day if they had to,” one employee told The Morning Call.
In this Mental Floss article about Amazon (which is pretty positive about actually, even inaccurately reporting that factories have nurses on staff, even though the “nurses” can only ice injuries, dispense asprin, and send employees immediately back to work on broom duty), we learn that Amazon gives employees 30 minutes for lunch, then uses about 20 of those minutes forcing employees through mandatory security checks. Think they should be paid for this? So did they — Amazon actually had the law changed at the federal level to avoid paying for that 20 minutes (so if your employer forces you into a shorter lunch break, you have Amazon to thank). And for the Amazon employees lucky enough to make it to the break room before returning to their shifts, Amazon has vending machines instead of a cafeteria, and they have about one microwave per ACRE of warehouse space.
According to this in-depth Guardian profile on life in an Amazon factory, in Amazon world, you’re a temporary worker for about a year, and this means you can pretty much be fired at will. Even if you’re not let go when your temp time is up, Amazon has a three-strikes policy on being sick or late to work (and they consider one minute late a strike — and remember you have those security checkpoints to get through before and after work, too). These are the kinds of jobs Amazon creates — the kind where you are fired for being sick for three days, even if they’re not in a row. Where you’re fired if your alarm doesn’t go off, or the traffic is bad, or you get stuck in a security checkpoint that your employer forces you to stand in. Where you might just be fired because it’s not Christmas anymore, or because the state you live in asked your employer to pay some taxes to help fund the roads their products travel on or the hospitals that will be treating you once you drop of heat stroke or exposure or anything that can’t be treated by a “nurse” with a bottle of discount Tylenol.
Amazon wants to deliver packages with drones. The FAA wants to regulate drones pretty strictly, basically asking for an operator to be in view of the drone at all times. Naysayers say this kind of caution is silly, and that conspiracy theories about drones being hacked or running into unforeseen obstacles and shedding parts onto people are scare tactics out of science fiction. The FAA, which has had to deal with aircraft being hacked and killing people before, seems to be exercising an abundance of caution. According to these articles on Amazon drones from USA Today and Forbes, Amazon is not amused.
A little over a month ago, the European Union launched an antitrust investigation into Amazon’s ebook policies according to this article on Amazon from NPR. The problem? Not only that Amazon is trying to force low prices out of publishers, but that they are requiring those publishers to let them know about any deals that other companies are giving them, presumably so they can undercut or go after those prices. Amazon’s attempts to control a whole market are pretty much business as usual for them. They also happen to be illegal.
Amazon got a lot of bad press for denying books from the publisher Hachette because they wanted lower prices, but it wasn’t the first time they’d pulled this stunt. According to this article on Amazon from The Nation, Amazon pulled the “buy” buttons off books from McMillian and Melville, too. In fact, they had an actual program designed to systematically kill small publishers. It was called the Gazelle Project because it was designed to pick of publishers like cheetahs going after “sickly gazelles.” That’s not an exaggeration — that’s what Jeff Bezos actually said. The name of the program was changed later for PR reasons.
According to this Forbes article on Amazon (and these articles from The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor), Amazon has a big problem with fake reviews — some say up to 30% of their reviews are fake. A lot of this is because people who list stuff on Amazon get friends and family to write positive reviews of their books and other products, but more troubling is that 10 to 15 percent of Amazon’s reviews are already fake, because they’re paid for by the product maker, not organically generated by people like Amazon would like us to believe.
It would seem like an Internet-based company would value its tech employees, but this open letter to Jeff Bezos written by a former developer for Amazon’s X-Ray claims that, because of Amazon’s policy of hiring temps (to avoid paying benefits and to make getting rid of employees at random easier), a developer’s experience with Amazon is becoming more dependent on managers who are pushed to value labor cost over creativity or good development.
I can’t say it any better than this Salon article on Amazon’s destructive attitude toward underpricing books, music and movies, so here’s a quote: “When it comes to books or music, there are additional invisible costs. If publishers are eventually forced to stop paying writers a living wage, society will never be able to measure the loss — in books not published, ideas not expressed, pleasure not given or received.”
Amazon’s new system of paying authors based on how many pages customers actually read of their Kindle books (instead of paying per book whether you finish it or not) means genres like thrillers and mysteries will be rewarded (because cliffhangers are likely to keep you reading), while books with slow burning plots and well developed characters will not be, according to this article on Amazon in The Atlantic. This means thrillers make more money, so it probably means more writers will publish thrillers. Long books are unlikely to be finished, so they’re less likely to be written. So long, Tolstoy! Amazon doesn’t need you anymore.
There are lots of articles that spell out how customers lost when Amazon lied about Hachette books, saying they were unavailable when they actually weren’t. Here’s an article by one Reuters writer who was bothered enough to cancel his Amazon accounts.
Want a list of grievances against Amazon that I haven’t mentioned here? There’s a Wikipedia page for that. Here’s a Wikipedia list of Amazon controversies, most of which I didn’t even mention in this post. (I had to save some for the 50th birthday.)
Of course, we’re all tempted to do business with Amazon. I do understand that. But maybe it’s worth it on a day like today (Prime Day or whatever Amazon is calling it) to refrain from buying a bunch of stuff. To take a step back and ask ourselves, not only if we really need what we’re buying, but who we’re hurting and what we’re sacrificing to have it.
Carrie Rollwagen is author of The Localist: Think Independent, Buy Local and Reclaim the American Dream, creator of 30 Days of Local Praise and co-founder of Church Street Coffee & Books. Find her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @crollwagen.