We live in an unprecedented era of convenience. We buy more products online than ever before, and COVID-19 has only boosted this growing market. One such corporation continues to loom larger than any other: Amazon.
Alongside alleged worker exploitation, antitrust violations and tax evasion, the tech giant sells Prime memberships that guarantee receipt of almost any product within just two days. Soon, that delivery time could be as little as 30 minutes, and Amazon has even begun to use drones for the job. This isn’t, however, the full extent of their technological innovation. Amazon’s business model uses artificial intelligence to predict, influence and manipulate our choices in consumption — this is surveillance capitalism.
We stand at the precipice of a new, technological dystopia. Amazon does not simply charge a small fee for “convenience” and riveting drone deliveries to your doorstep. It abuses technological advancements to monetize human behavior, and toothless federal regulation allows Amazon to get away with it. The Federal Trade Commission, which protects competition and consumers, merely advises corporations using artificial intelligence to act in good faith and “hold [themselves] accountable.” Based on Amazon’s appalling track record, we should expect the worst.
“The Social Dilemma,” a recent documentary on media and technology from director Jeff Orlowski, outlines the extent to which companies forecast our behavior. Everyone should be alarmed. As computing philosopher Jaron Lanier explains in the film, we are neither the consumers nor the products: “It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product.” Amazon’s algorithms detect behavioral patterns through our online activity, build models to predict our actions and reduce our human agency by promoting advertisements and commercial goods that serve just one interest: their profits. Amazon’s business model also uses this information to keep consumers subconsciously addicted to their services through growth hacking and persuasive technology — two marketing tactics that exploit the human psyche. The most alarming part? The majority of us don’t even know it.
Similarly, Shoshana Zuboff, a professor emerita at Harvard Business School, defines “surveillance capitalism” as the “unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. These data are then computed and packaged as prediction products and sold into behavioral futures markets.” In “The Social Dilemma,” Zuboff cautions that this is a threat to freedom itself.
Amazon is also the industry pioneer of cloud computing in conjunction with artificial intelligence. Amazon Web Services (AWS), the company’s most lucrative division, uses its extensive server network to store, manage and process user data on remote servers. Companies can rent these servers as they please. Their machine learning products, such as Amazon SageMaker, can “[predict] customer behavior” and are available for purchase at the click of a button. AWS is Amazon’s data auction house, and its bidders span the entire corporate world. These companies purchase “business solution” products to eliminate the financial risks of consumer demand uncertainty. Under this system, Amazon’s own users become their cash cow.
Fortunately, all hope is not lost. Amazon maintains control by saturating the market, promoting apathy toward and ignorance of their abuses. Therefore, we should collectively disrupt their revenue by reclaiming our data.
Tristan Harris, co-founder and president of the Center for Humane Technology, empowers individuals to take exactly such action. As Google’s former design ethicist, Harris understands that technology is never neutral, so he promotes technology that serves the public before corporate interests. This strategy starts with mass education and subsequent demand for federal regulation.
Harris’ humane tech initiative advocates for several changes to our regulatory framework, including putting people first, confronting corporate power and seeking sustainability. The first component centers public interests. Existing laws, such as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, legally protects corporations from inappropriate or illegal user content. Yet, there is no legal equivalent protecting consumers from machine learning business tactics.
Harris argues that policymakers must reform Section 230 by expanding this model and holding corporations responsible for the harmful impacts of technology. Regulation must protect the public before profits. Policies must address the power imbalance between consumers and corporate giants like Amazon. The burden of proof and compliance must fall on those with more power. Policies must seek sustainable practices to address root causes. For instance, Harris’ principles explain that banning third-party cookies is not effective because corporations may implement more intrusive methods like tracking pixels and fingerprinting which circumvent restrictions.
However, federal regulation often takes time, so I implore readers to #CancelPrime and combat Amazon’s egregious unethicality now. Existing #CancelPrime campaigns, like the nonprofit organization Threshold, directly disrupt Amazon’s revenue stream. Threshold even offers consumers a number of alternatives to Amazon.
To start, we should #CancelPrime and demand regulatory change from our elected officials. We must charge companies to use our data rather than provide it to them as a free, exploitable resource. Our human freedom and agency depend on it.
Viviana Barreto (22C) is from Covington, Georgia.