Amazon gets the message

In his farewell letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos finally confronts his labor issues

Today, let’s talk about the new tone Jeff Bezos is taking when talking about Amazon — and whether we can expect it to have any practical effect on the company after he turns over the CEO job to his successor, Andy Jassy.

A recurring theme in this column is Amazon’s general indifference to public perception. Last month, it picked a losing fight with Congress over the unionization efforts at its Bessemer, AL fulfillment center. A year ago, the Wall Street Journal revealed that the company had lied to lawmakers about whether it used data from third-party sellers to inform product development. A couple years before that, it conducted a sham search for a second “headquarters” that angered politicians around the country.

The company has seen record growth every year since anyway, and it was the most-liked of all big tech companies even before the pandemic made people more depend on it. (Amazon picked up 50 million new Prime subscribers in 2020, an increase of about one-third in just 12 months.)

Given Amazon’s tendency to dismiss most criticism, you might have expected Bezos’ last letter to shareholders to resemble an extended victory lap. Certainly it would be warranted: Amazon is one of the most extraordinary businesses ever built.

But that’s not really Bezos’ style. His religious devotion to “Day 1” — the idea that businesses ought to remain as paranoid and action-oriented as they were when they first born, lest they be defeated by entropy — precludes that sort of long walk into the sunset.

And so perhaps we should not be too surprised that he took on labor issues at the company head on. Sure, Bezos has mentioned them before — his letter last year also devoted many paragraphs to Amazon’s support for the $15 minimum wage, re-training workers, and so on — but I’m not sure he has ever confronted critics quite so directly. Bezos writes:

Does your Chair take comfort in the outcome of the recent union vote in Bessemer? No, he doesn’t. I think we need to do a better job for our employees. While the voting results were lopsided and our direct relationship with employees is strong, it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for how we create value for employees – a vision for their success.

If you read some of the news reports, you might think we have no care for employees. In those reports, our employees are sometimes accused of being desperate souls and treated as robots. That’s not accurate. They’re sophisticated and thoughtful people who have options for where to work. When we survey fulfillment center employees, 94% say they would recommend Amazon to a friend as a place to work.

Bezos knows that there will be more efforts to unionize in Amazon fulfillment centers, and future ones might not be quite so easy to defeat. And so he sets two enormous goals for the Amazon of the future. The company should be “Earth’s Best Employer,” he writes, and “Earth’s Safest Place to Work.” And he plans to work on these projects personally:

In my upcoming role as Executive Chair, I’m going to focus on new initiatives. I’m an inventor. It’s what I enjoy the most and what I do best. It’s where I create the most value. I’m excited to work alongside the large team of passionate people we have in Ops and help invent in this arena of Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work. On the details, we at Amazon are always flexible, but on matters of vision we are stubborn and relentless. We have never failed when we set our minds to something, and we’re not going to fail at this either.

Is it just me, or does this sound like a man who has at long last gotten the message?

It has taken long enough. Pushback on the company’s claims of being a friend to the working man has come from all corners, from Republican Sen. Marco Rubio to Democrats like President Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. And despite Bezos’ note that 94 percent of employees say they would recommend Amazon as a good place to work, it’s the company’s own workers who keep bringing disturbing information about their job sites to light. (I’m still trying to unsee the photos of pee bottles that workers used in the absence of bathroom breaks that they submitted to Vice.)

Over the past year, workers have filed at least 37 complaints to the National Labor Relations Board alleging interference with workers’ right to organize, more than triple the total in the previous year. Amazon mounted an anti-union campaign that included, among other things, firing organizers on flimsy pretexts.

If workers were as happy at Amazon as Bezos says they are, you wonder why all of that was necessary. And maybe — finally — he does, too.

There are technological ways of improving Amazon as a workplace, he says. The company can rotate workers who perform repetitive tasks to lessen the strain on their bodies, for example, using “sophisticated algorithms.” It will spend $66 million “to create technology that will help prevent collisions of forklifts.” It will invent more things like this under Bezos in his new role.

No tech giant deserves much credit for announcing a simple intention to do better. Amazon’s business requires punishing physical labor, along with ruthlessly seeking new efficiencies that chip away at workers’ dignity. The company is also leading the way in the use of automation technologies that will make those same workers’ jobs ever more precarious. It’s hard to even imagine how such a system could come to be seen as “Earth’s Best Employer,” no matter how good Amazon’s forklift management software someday becomes.

But part of the unusual power that founder-led tech giants have is the way their creators can marshal internal goodwill, along with their limitless finances, to make investments that others won’t.

Bezos’ promise to become “Earth’s Best Employer” is on some level insane, because it immediately becomes a cudgel with which lawmakers, the press, and the public can beat Amazon every time another labor issue is discovered. (I predict “Earth’s Best Employer” will become to Amazon what “don’t be evil” became for Google, or “move fast and break things” became for Facebook: a mission statement that ultimately became more useful to critics than it did to the company itself.)

The thing is, though, that Bezos is smart. Like, world-historically smart. He knows that he is setting the bar far above where it sits today, and he knows that he is going to be held accountable to it. Bezos’ version of the world’s best employer likely looks a lot different than mine, but I also imagine that it could lead to higher wages, safer working conditions, and better job training programs, at least for the workers who aren’t replaced by robots. Hopefully it will lead to less union-busting and bottle-peeing as well.

In the days after the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal, Facebook executives looked as tone deaf as Amazon has lately in response to its labor issues. Eventually, though, they realized their tone had to change — and their business practices had to as well. We can argue about how effective the 30,000 people hired to shore up the platform’s security have been, but it’s undeniable that Facebook transformed its approach to integrity between late 2016 and today. And it all started with a belated acknowledgement that the company had a problem.

Maybe the cursed @AmazonNews account will snipe at another member of Congress tomorrow in the coming days, and all of the above will seem moot. Or maybe Amazon has truly internalized that the time has come to shut up and listen.

For now, it sure seems like Jeff Bezos is. And I can’t say I saw that one coming.

Elsewhere in Amazon: How Amazon threatens companies who don’t comply with its strong-arm negotiations across various lines of business. And: Hundreds of thousands of small Indian businesses were set to protest Amazon and other foreign retailers today — the same day as Amazon’s annual seller jamboree in India.


The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech companies. If you’re wondering why there’s so much happy climate news, today is Earth day.

⬆️ Trending up: Facebook reached its goal of using 100 percent renewable energy. The company is working to reach net-zero emissions across its entire “value chain” by 2030, including vendors, employee commuting, and business travel.(Saqib Shah / Engadget)

⬆️ Trending up: Apple announced a $200 million fund to fight climate change. The Restore fund will “invest in forestry projects to help remove carbon from the atmosphere while also generating financial returns for its investors.” (Kim Lyons / The Verge)

⬆️ Trending up: Google said it would provide 250,000 COVID-19 vaccinations to countries in need amid a global shortage. The company will also fund pop-up vaccine sites in the United States, and commit $250 million in ad grants “to connect people to accurate vaccine information.” (Karen DeSalvo / Google)

⬆️ Trending up: Substack announced a new $1 million effort to fund local journalism. This is the exact right way to spend venture capital, and I couldn’t be rooting harder for its success. (Peter Kafka / Recode)


Governing

The Biden administration placed significant economic sanctions on Russia for its recent cyber attacks, including the SolarWinds fiasco. Here’s Ellen Nakashima with details in the Washington Post:

The administration also sanctioned six Russian companies that support Russian spy services’ cyberhacking operations and will expel 10 intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover in the United States. It formally named the Russian intelligence service SVR as responsible for the hacking operation commonly known as SolarWinds.

The measures were taken under a new executive order and are an effort to make good on President Biden’s vow to hold Moscow accountable for a series of operations, including the election influence and the cyberhacks, that compromised nine federal agencies and about 100 private firms.

The US House Judiciary Committee officially approved a 400-page report about antitrust, setting the stage for it to be used as the basis for new legislation to promote competition. One such bill, which would allow publishers to negotiate collectively with tech giants, has already been introduced. (Diane Bartz / Reuters)

A former alt-right YouTuber explained the methods he used to succeed on the platform. Caolan Robertson, who produced videos for Alex Jones, Lauren Southern and others, talks about how he used deceptive editing and staged conflicts to boost engagement on the platform. (Cade Metz / New York Times)

Social networks play a critical role in amplifying domestic extremism, FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress. “Mr. Wray stopped short of blaming Silicon Valley companies for aiding domestic extremism, instead urging Americans ‘to understand better what the information is that they are reading.’” (Dustin Volz and Rachael Levy / Wall Street Journal)

Sen. Ron Wyden proposed a bill to ban the sale of Americans’ personal data to foreign governments. The largely unregulated industry of data brokers has come under increasing scrutiny as the Democratic Congress considers privacy proposals. (Drew Harwell / Washington Post)

Amazon and Google were among the hundreds of companies that signed a letter opposing new restrictions on voting. The real question is which politicians they donate to, though — fortunately, Judd Legum will be watching. (David Gelles and Andrew Ross Sorkin / New York Times)

Facebook allowed a network of fake accounts to boost a member of Parliament from India’s ruling party for months after being alerted to the problem. The latest in a series based on interviews with former employee Sophie Zhang finds that all of India’s major parties used deceptive tactics to acquire fake likes, comments, shares or fans. (Julia Carrie Wong and Hannah Ellis-Petersen / Guardian)

Facebook temporarily unpublished the page for the French town of Bitche after apparently determining that the 500-year-old name violated its policies. (Jules Darmanin / Politico)

Facebook sued a company for cybersquatting on domains similar to ones it owns, saying they could be used to deceive users. “NVSC registered hundreds of lookalike domain names that could be used to deceive people by impersonating Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp,” Facebook said. (Nikki Vo / Facebook)

Thousands of small internet businesses in Myanmar operating on Facebook have had their businesses gutted by junta-imposed internet outages and blocks to the site. The coup has brought e-commerce to a halt in the country, forcing residents to rely on cash. (Nu Nu Lusan, Emily Fishbein and Peter Gest / Rest of World

There is no way to hide your status on WhatsApp, and several websites make it easy to look up. This could be used for stalking behaviors, experts say. (Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai / Vice)


Industry

A coalition of 35 childrens’ and consumer groups urged Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to abandon an effort to build a version of Instagram for kids. Here’s Natasha Singer in the New York Times:

Instagram’s push for a separate children’s app comes after years of complaints from legislators and parents that the platform has been slow to identify underage users and protect them from sexual predators and bullying.

But in a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook — the company that owns the photo-sharing service — the nonprofit groups warned that a children’s version of Instagram would not mitigate such problems. While 10- to 12-year-olds with Instagram accounts would be unlikely to switch to a “babyish version” of the app, the groups said, it could hook even younger users on endless routines of photo-scrolling and body-image shame.

Related: Microsoft introduced a kids mode for its Edge browser. It offers different settings for children aged 5-8 and 9-12. (Tom Warren / The Verge)

Facebook will begin promoting businesses in a new “topics” section underneath posts and ads in the News Feed. It’s a new way for the company to create useful first-party data as Apple cracks down on other forms of tracking. (Sarah Perez / TechCrunch)

Oculus added subscriptions with free trials. Alas, Platformer remains unavailable in VR — for now. (Oculus)

Google Earth now shows decades of climate change in seconds. The company “partnered with NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, and Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab to bring users time-lapse images of the planet’s surface—24 million satellite photos taken over 37 years.” (Eric Roston / Bloomberg)

Epic Games is now valued at $28.7 billion after a fresh fundraise. The $1 billion round should help in the company’s ongoing global war against the Apple and Google app stores. (Sarah E. Needleman / Wall Street Journal)

MyPillow CEO and Big Lie promoter Mike Lindell is launching a new “free speech social network” that will ban taking the Lord’s name in vain. Frank is launching tomorrow; you are also banned from saying “the c-word, the n-word, [and] the f-word,” Lindell says in a promotional video. (Russell Brandom / The Verge)

A look at the long-term consequences of being a whistleblower at Google, Pinterest, and other tech companies. In many cases, whistleblowers are flooded with job offers from other companies — but they’re leery of taking on new jobs in tech after being traumatized by previous roles. (Issie Lapowsky / Protocol)

Core is a new platform for creating and remixing video games, and allowing their creators to easily monetize them. In a year-long alpha, the platform attracted 20,000 free playable games. (Jon Porter / The Verge)

When Grindr went down recently, men started to hit on each other in the comments section of DownDetector. What can I say, I love my people. (Cam Wilson / Gizmodo)


Those good tweets


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