1-Click ordering a massively discounted flat-screen TV, or seventy pounds of coarse-grained salt, it can be easy to forget, or temporarily repress, all those stories you’ve read about, say, working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses, or its propagation of the gig economy through contract labour.
The same applies, of course, to Uber rides, or Big Macs. But Amazon seems to have a particularly ubiquitous grasp on the average western wallet. Which gets one thinking, is Amazon just another massive corporate entity to feel a vague sense of guilt about giving your money to? Or is it actually evil? And—if it is evil—does that make you evil for using it?
For this week’s Giz Asks, we asked a broad spectrum of experts—philosophers, business professors, lawyers, heads of nonprofits and policy resource centres—to weigh in on those questions. What ensued were wide-ranging discussions on the nature of evil, capitalism and consumer-level action and responsibility. If you’re a Prime member, or Jeff Bezos, you might be pleased to hear that, despite the tax-dodging and predatory pricing and labor exploitation detailed below, our experts were for the most part hesitant to saddle Amazon with that particular word—but then, there’s a difference between being “not evil” and “good.”
Associate Professor, Seattle University School of Law
Evil suggests something outside of the norm, and—unfortunately—I don’t think Amazon’s labour practices qualify as that.
Amazon (and e-commerce generally) shifts employment from brick-and-mortar retail stores to warehouses. Warehouse jobs often pay better than retail store jobs, but they are also more geographically concentrated and skew more towards men and the non-disabled. So an Amazon warehouse near your city could mean more local jobs (though even that is disputed)—but if you live in a rural area far from an airport, you’re never going to get an Amazon fulfilment centre, even as Amazon makes it harder for your local stores to survive.
There’s also the kind of jobs Amazon is creating. Warehouse work is always hard work, but there are major differences between working at an Amazon fulfilment centre and working in a unionised warehouse with full employer-paid health benefits and for-cause protection from firing. And, if Amazon’s new patents for a wearable monitor that tracks how quickly workers are moving is anything to go by, things are likely to get worse unless Amazon workers and consumers demand that they get better.
Improving working conditions at Amazon (and companies like it) is going to take collective pressure. That could come in the form of a union drive at Amazon warehouses, but it could also come from Amazon’s customers. Amazon isn’t immune to public disapproval—for example, it only took a day after a journalist reported that Amazon was requiring seasonal warehouse workers to sign non-compete agreements for Amazon to drop that requirement.
I understand (from first-hand experience) why people use Amazon—it’s a time-saver, and people lead busy lives—so I won’t criticise Amazon shoppers. But if you have the bandwidth to re-direct your purchasing dollars, locally owned business and larger unionised stores (like Costco) would surely appreciate it. Maybe even more important, support good jobs policies, and demand that state and local agencies charged with enforcing labour standards be adequately empowered and funded. Finally, states and municipalities often give tax concessions to lure Amazon fulfilment centres; citizens could call for them to be made contingent on improved wages and working conditions. There is room for improvement, if we demand it.
Assistant Professor, Communication, Science Studies, Design Lab, UC San Diego
Amazon is not evil. It is just very, very good at capitalism. And we have a system of social organisation that rewards them for squeezing workers, promising a fully automated future for the financial markets, and replacing brick and mortar as it careens towards monopoly. Amazon’s crowdsourced data processing system, Mechanical Turk, puts thousands of data processing workers at the disposal of AI and Machine Learning engineers. But Amazon, like Uber, Lyft, and Microsoft before it, employs these workers as independent contractors who earn a median wage of $2/hour. Amazon’s warehouses choreograph workers to the rhythms of robots who move products as far as they can before human dexterity comes into play. Amazon managers, working for efficiency, speedy delivery, and cost reduction, push these workers harder and harder—tracked by the scanners they use as they pick and box—for as little money as the law and enforcement officials allow. And Amazon now owns Whole Foods and experiments in surveillance and AI driven retail with Amazon Go stores. But as internet users, we have no effective say in how the data we generate on company platforms get bought, sold, and used. We have no say in how companies engineer our attention, change our work processes, cultivate our consumption, and steward our histories.
To call Amazon evil is to make the problem a moral problem. Many of Amazon’s tendencies, however, are not unique to the company, to tech, or to business. I worked at Google for four years; Google also used hidden, underpaid workers and oceans of our data to monetise our lives. And its motto was “Don’t be Evil.” Evil is not the problem. Lack of democracy is. Who designs the technologies that shape our social relationships? How does the value generated through consumers’, workers’, and owner activities get distributed? How do we change the algorithms and logistics processes that clearly do not serve the majority of us? Compassionate, moral CEOs and corporate social responsibility cannot address the scope of the problem. There is always a more efficient, ruthless, and creative company that can come along and supplant the ethical ones. When we’re talking about evil, we’re actually talking about capitalism and how it directs our technological futures when there is no opt out.
We need to support workers’ organisations and consumer unions that scrutinise technological claims on behalf of people, not investors, CEOs, and consultants. We need to look beyond Universal Basic Income and its implied assent to the automation of whatever companies find convenient; income alone does not ensure access to health, education, and information for all. If you’re a tech worker, join the Tech Worker Coalition or Tech Solidarity. We need political movements that create policies, laws, and institutions that put us in charge of our technologies.
Executive Director of Good Jobs First
Yes, Amazon is evil. It’s aggressive about dodging taxes, and about getting everyone else to subsidise its inevitable growth through tax breaks. Amazon’s original business model involved legally dodging the obligation to collect sales taxes, and then using the resulting price advantage to gain market share. It did this by locating its first warehouses in very few states, most of which do not have a sales tax, and then shipping its goods to customers in all the other states that do tax retail sales. This enabled Amazon to not have “nexus” in sales-tax states, so those states could not compel it to collect the tax.
But after Amazon created its Prime membership and that model evolved towards next-day and even same-day delivery, Amazon could no longer avoid nexus. It was also getting pursued by some states for skirting the rules; Texas alone came after it for $269 million in uncollected sales taxes. So in 2011, apparently realising it would now have to build warehouses in or near every major market with lots of Prime customers (and more than half of U.S. households are said to be Prime members), Amazon started caving on the sales tax issue. But it also realised it could get economic development subsidies to “create” new jobs (even though e-commerce jobs grow at the expense of bricks-and-mortar retail jobs)... In  alone, Amazon pulled down 21 tax-incentive deals for its warehouses and cloud-computing data centres (Amazon Web Services). And it has been on a tax-break jag ever since, getting at least 24 more last year alone—even though its business model requires it to have all these fulfilment centres! All told, we’ve identified $1.39 billion in 136 such subsidy deals given to Amazon, with the full costs of several remaining undisclosed as Amazon has tried to become more secretive about them.
William J. Rewak, S.J. Professor, Philosophy, Santa Clara University and author of Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting
Ever since Google formulated its original ‘Don’t be evil’ motto, too many conversations about technology ethics have devolved into the simplistic dilemma of ‘good vs. evil,’ which is not the most helpful or constructive ethical concept to work with. ‘Evil’ is that which we have decided lies outside the boundary of the moral community. You don’t reason with evil or apply ethical pressure to evil, you denounce and abhor it, and do whatever you can to neutralise its power and protect others from it.
So: is Amazon evil? Is Amazon outside the boundary of the moral community, something to be utterly despised and excluded? No, and that’s not the most helpful way to frame the problem of Amazon’s failure to fulfil its responsibilities to the larger society of which it is a part. Nor does it make sense to single out Amazon and not the litany of other large corporate actors that also frequently fail to uphold their part of the social contract. That said, it does make sense for voters and customers to call them to account. This can only really be done by fundamentally changing the incentive structures of our economic and political systems, so that corporations like Amazon incur real, meaningful costs when they evade their ethical responsibilities and act as ‘free riders’ on society—profiting and drawing public resources from the social fabric that makes their existence possible without paying enough in taxes to sustain that fabric, or without repairing the social wear and tear that results from their own activities.
Does that mean that an individual who continues to patronise Amazon is ‘evil’? Again, that’s not a helpful category. As long as the socioeconomic order continues to reward unethical actors and punish or neglect ethical ones, then the effect of such strategies, however ethical, will be limited. What is really needed is a political sea change.
Co-Director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance
The relevant question is not whether Amazon is “evil.” (It’s not.) It’s whether we should allow Amazon to entrench itself as the gatekeeper to the consumer economy—or use our antitrust laws to check its power and insist on an open and competitive market.
To understand the nature of the threat Amazon poses, it’s important to stop thinking of the company as a retailer. Amazon’s strategy is to own the infrastructure that other businesses rely on to get to market. Because most online shopping searches now start at Amazon, rather than at a search engine, virtually every retailer and manufacturer that wants to reach people online has little choice but to set up shop on Amazon’s platform.
The obvious problem here is that Amazon competes with these same companies. Studies and reporting show that Amazon exploits their dependence to undermine them as rivals. According to Harvard Business School research, for example, when sellers list new products, Amazon monitors their transactions and begins selling their most popular items itself.
We’ve been here before. There was a time when powerful industrialists gained control of the railroads and exploited that control to limit their competitors’ access to market. Americans responded by using antitrust laws to break up the railroad trusts and stop their anti-competitive behaviour, and that’s what we need to do now with Amazon.
Doing so would safeguard the web’s inventiveness and the economy’s dynamism by ensuring that businesses have a chance to emerge and grow without being stifled by a dominant Overlord—especially one who has a taste for the villainous photo-op.
Senior Fellow, Dispute Resolution Institute and Professor, Mitchell-Hamline School of Law
You think about economic philosophers, and you go back to utopian socialists and Marxists, who would say that capitalism in itself is evil and anybody that participates is therefore evil. Then you have things like the US Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, which said corporations have first amendment rights when it comes to political contributions. Then you could say, well, okay, on the one hand, if corporations actually have first amendment rights, which we typically think belong to individuals, and we think evil comes from individuals, well then, maybe corporations have obligations just like individuals do—an obligation not to be evil.
One thing that you might say is maybe a little bit evil is Amazon’s treatment of geriatric migrant workers. Some would say, well, Amazons’ being benevolent, because these are people that don’t have retirement savings, they’ve lost their jobs, they don’t have any options, so this is an option that Amazon is offering to people. But the work is hard, and strenuous, and sometimes the days are 10 or 12 hours, and older bodies can’t necessarily handle that very well. So some would say, boy, they’re really exploiting a gap in our society—that we’re not taking care of older workers, and they’re losing their jobs through downsizing and age discrimination, and Amazon is being somewhat evil in an opportunistic way in taking advantage of them.
Are we evil if we use Amazon? I don’t know if we’re evil, but we certainly may be inattentive.
Christopher L. Sagers
James A. Thomas Distinguished Professor of Law, Cleveland State University
I humbly think that Amazon is a problem in more than one way—a potentially really big problem. But I also think that in economic policy it is actually not very useful to ask who is “evil” and who is not. That isn’t because greed and power seem good or indifferent to me—I think they seem pretty bad. It’s because, in economic policy, they don’t seem relevant to getting the policies right. If Amazon wants to destroy its competitors through retail price competition, and wants to push down its suppliers’ margins with its power as an indispensable distributor, well, it is only doing what every business does to some degree all the time. So a big problem in trying to make policy by asking who’s the good guy is that we might look for them for a pretty long time without finding any. And that tends to be an affirmatively good thing so long as even those aggressive and vicious competitors are confronted by others that can meaningfully respond in kind. In fact, it’s when we try to handle economic policy conflicts as if they are morality plays that we tend to get cases seriously wrong, and wind up disserving the people that the policies were meant to help. It’s better to try to understand economic problems as the unfolding logic of a social process, and leave the morality to one’s clergy.
Associate Professor, Management Discipline Group, University of Technology Sydney and Core Member of the Centre for Business and Social Innovation
and Emmanuel Josserand
Professor, Management Discipline Group, University of Technology Sydney and Director of the Centre for Business and Social Innovation
A good indication of Amazon’s values is captured in the name of its crowdsourcing website—Mechanical Turk—where clients post tasks (often collections of micro-tasks) and “turkers” complete them. In his book Uberworked and Underpaid: How Workers are disrupting the Digital Economy, Trebor Scholz explains that the name Mechanical Turk refers to an ‘invention’ of the late 1700s in which a chess master was hidden in a box controlling an automated set of mechanical hands that looked to be moving the pieces and playing the game independently. Amazon Mechanical Turk is designed to hide, not acknowledge human labour.
It might be libellous to assert the Amazon ‘intends to harm,’ per the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of evil, but the litany of allegations against Amazon ranging from the individual (the mistreatment of workers, differential pricing to customers), to the market (anti-competitive behaviour including the suppression of competitor products), to the social (tax avoidance)—suggest an organisation that not only lacks a moral compass but could be well on its way to a state of ‘profound immorality’.
As for whether using it makes us evil…well, it depends on who ‘we’ are. It is hard to argue that a consumer buying from Amazon on a website among millions intends to harm, or even that they are conscious to harm. But some of us do know about Amazon’s approach. So if we know is it forgivable to want to save a few dollars on our next superfluous gadget? Now that you have read this are you morally bound not to buy from Amazon? Maybe it is worth a thought if you can afford the extra cost.
But if you’re a single mother with a couple of kids and a minimum wage job, that’s another story. Ethical and activist consumerism are luxury goods and probably worth the price if you can still put a meal on the table or afford a pair of sneakers for your kids. If that is not the case—if for, instance, the downward pressure on wages exerted by the likes of Amazon has affected your salary—maybe you don’t have a choice. And who could blame you for choosing to do the right thing for your family?
This demonstrates the paradox —that the race to the bottom which increases inequalities in our societies feeds its own market. The question is: for how long, and at what cost?
So, if you have the time to read this instead of ‘ubering’ on top of your day job to pay the rent, yes, you can probably consider yourself evil if you keep shopping with Amazon.