We gave Amazon a decency score of seven out of twenty – an Indecent rating.
They’ve repeatedly violated users’ privacy without getting informed consent, and they’re now leading the vanguard to advance corporate surveillance into physical spaces. At the same time, they’ve unfairly competed against sellers on their marketplace, and proceeded to lie about it in front of Congress.
But arguably, Amazon’s biggest legacy has been the relentless “optimization” of workplaces at the expense of the workers themselves. They’ve made work worse across all levels of their organization, and exported the tools of relentless optimization to other companies. And nowhere is Amazon’s surveillance regime more intense than in their own warehouses, where AI-powered cameras scrutinize workers, hunting for inefficiencies.
Before we dig into these fronts a little deeper, let’s talk about the revenue model that drives Amazon’s business and the corporate ideology that structures its decision-making.
For more information, click here to read the introduction to our Tech Decency Ratings series.
Amazon’s Business Model
Amazon is a retail company. Of the $386 billion revenue they made in 2019, 83% came from retail sales and subscriptions.
Most of that (72% of total revenue) came from online sales: $197.2 billion sold directly through Amazon, and another $80.4 billion made through third-party sellers – independent businesses listing their products on Amazon. Physical stores, such as Whole Foods, contributed an additional $16 billion (4.2% of total revenue), and subscriptions comprised $25.2 billion (6.5% of total).
Amazon Web Services made $45.3 billion in 2019, making it the largest non-retail segment of Amazon’s business at 11.7% of total revenue. Only 5% of Amazon’s revenue comes from sources other than the above.
Amazon is not your typical retailer. The 83% of revenue that comes from retail includes Amazon’s own inventions, such as Alexa smart devices. It also includes sales of digital products, such as streaming movies and ebooks. But shipping physical products to customers’ doorsteps remains Amazon’s #1 business.
Amazon’s Corporate Ideology
Amazon’s mission is “to be Earth’s most customer-centric company.” This defines Amazon: the core service they offer is getting just about anything to your door in two days. Their customer service can’t be beat, and the innovations they take pride in, such as customer reviews and Alexa, reflect this focus on the customer.
Alongside this mission, Amazon operates on four core principles:
- Customer obsession rather than competitor focus
- Passion for invention
- Commitment to operational excellence
- Long-term thinking
Any value can have a negative side to match its positive. For one example, Amazon frames its customer obsession as opposed to a focus on the competition. But in practice, this customer obsession often comes at the expense of its own employees.
Amazon’s commitment to operational excellence is a key support to their customer obsession. “Operations” isn’t sexy, but it’s how you deliver millions of packages on a two-day turnaround every week. Combine that commitment to operational excellence with customer obsession and you have a company that will spare nothing of its own employees to make sure its packages arrive on time.
We rate Amazon a one out of five on Privacy, a Dismal rating. They collect an abundance of information on their customers, especially those who use their smart devices. Typically, Amazon has not been up front about this information with customers, relying on hidden opt-outs instead of getting clear consent for its most invasive practices.
In 2019, it came out that Amazon employees and contractors were listening to smart device recordings, unbeknownst to customers. Only after the media picked up on this did Amazon offer users the ability to opt out of “human review”. But most Alexa users likely remain unaware that someone at Amazon might be listening in. This kind of invasive surveillance demands positive consent – not an opt-out tucked away in Alexa’s settings.
With Ring devices, Amazon has opened up yet another front in corporate surveillance. Ring has a bad history with privacy: for a long time, any employee could access the unencrypted recordings of any active Ring device.
More recently, Amazon debuted Sidewalk, which connects Echoes, Rings, and other devices into a sprawling local network. Although this pushes a privacy risk on consumers, Amazon again relies on an opt-out tucked away into settings. This fits a clear pattern: when it comes to the most invasive aspects of Amazon products, Amazon does not inform customers or ask for their consent.
Amazon has also pushed the boundaries of employee surveillance. Workers at its warehouses are recorded and closely monitored. From there, Amazon’s AI-driven computer vision analyzes their action and monitors for inefficiencies and hazards.
Not only does Amazon deploy this technology in their own warehouses, but they sell it for use by other employers. Recently, an executive at Fender touted the benefits of this new technology:
“With AWS Panorama and help from the Amazon Machine Learning Solutions Lab, we can track how long it takes for an associate to complete each task in the assembly of a guitar so that we’re able to optimize efficiency and track key metrics.”
This level of monitoring should be disturbing – do we really want around the clock monitoring and machine analysis to become standard? As we’ll explore in our section on Impact, this is a key part of Amazon’s concerted drive to make workplaces worse in pursuit of operational excellence.
Amazon scores three out of five points on Trust. They’re careful with users data, though they still encounter the occasional breach or exploit. But Amazon isn’t always honest with the public, and their nonconsensual privacy intrusions make it hard to fully trust the company.
Amazon has had the occasional data breach. But these have been small in scale and impact, and from everything I can tell, they have been forthright with those affected. They’ve also encountered the occasional exploit, including a recent one that could have allowed hackers to access a customer’s Alexa voice history. None of this is atypical for a company serving so many customers across so many services.
But it’s troubling to see Amazon opt in customers to features such as Sidewalk without their knowledge or consent. A trustworthy company would make clear to its customers that they may be monitored by its employees, or that their smarthome is networking with unknown devices.
Amazon has been dishonest in other ways, as well. Just last year, they got caught lying in front of Congress. The nature of the lie touches on Fairness – our next topic.
Amazon’s $281 billion in annual revenue makes them the second biggest company based in the United States. But they’re outclassed in retail by Walmart, the largest company in the world at $524 billion in annual revenue.
Amazon holds a 5% stake in U.S. retail – hardly monopoly numbers. They hold an estimated 30-40% of online retail, but that doesn’t quite compare to the dominance Google and Facebook exert over search, social media, and online advertising.
But Amazon does not always play fair, especially when it comes to the independent retailers who sell through Amazon’s storefront. Although these sellers cover a majority of products sold on Amazon, they remain vulnerable to competition from Amazon itself.
Amazon collects data from across its storefront. It then leverages this data to identify successful sellers, replicate their products, and then deploy their own marketing playbooks against them. In 2020, an Amazon representative told Congress this practice was against Amazon’s internal policies. But a Wall Street Journal investigation found that Amazon does in fact leverage their data to outcompete third-party sellers. That’s not fair play – which is why Amazon lied to Congress about it.
Overall, though, the anti-trust case against Amazon is not as clear as those against Google and Facebook. It’s hard to point to one sector where Amazon holds a clear monopoly. However, their hold over online retail is considerable. And their unfair behavior to sellers points to the need for greater regulation – in any case, they should not be allowed to operate with impunity.
We rate Amazon a one out of five on impact. More than any other tech company, they have embraced ruthless efficiency at the expense of their employees’ well-being. In so doing, they have set new standards for exploitation. They have even sought to export this model – and the tools that support it – to other companies.
Amazon’s shipping empire runs on the backs of human workers, supported by automated systems. These systems work to boost human efficiency, often to the point of injury. As Amazon has added more AI to its warehouses, injury rates have risen – especially in those warehouses that rely most heavily on automation tools. In 2019, Amazon recorded 14,000 serious injuries at its warehouses – that translates to 7.7 injuries per 100 employees, double the industry average.
Amazon does not care about its employees. Not the way it values operational excellence or serving the customer. For a company dedicated to being the most customer centric business on Earth, it only makes sense that there might be some employee casualties along the way.
Not only does Amazon constantly record its warehouses, but they have developed AI-driven tools to enable its computers to study their movements and hunt for inefficiencies. It even sells these “computer vision” technologies to other companies.
Amazon has routinely retaliated against employees that speak out. In some cases, they’ve not only fired these frustrated workers, but embarked on strategic smear campaigns to discredit them.
The atmosphere at brutal efficiency at Amazon extends up the ranks through its corporate offices, as well. Workers at Amazon describe bruising expectations, cutthroat culture, and a work environment hostile to women – especially working mothers.
This is the dark side of “the most customer-centric company on Earth”. Amazon values operational efficiencies, but not its own employees, and it shows in their record of workplace injuries and the atmosphere of bruising efficiency that permeates all levels of their organization.
Final Score: 7/20
So we arrive at Amazon’s final score: seven out of twenty, an Indecent rating.
Their low marks on Privacy and Impact weigh heavy on this evaluation. Like an authoritarian government, Amazon monitors its best customers, ostensibly for their own benefit. Their employees live in a different kind of dystopia: one in which the pursuit of operational excellence renders workers’ well-being irrelevant.
But Amazon is at least fairly trustworthy. And though they’re not always fair to the independent sellers that comprise most of its online sales, the anti-trust case against Amazon is not as clear as those against some of their fellow tech companies.
How Amazon Compares to Other Big Tech Companies
Amazon’s seven out of twenty puts it in the middle of the pack, relative to the other big tech companies.
For more information, see our Big Tech Decency Ratings hub.
How Should Customers Handle Amazon?
How you approach Amazon depends on how much you care about privacy and work conditions.
If you’re serious about privacy, I wouldn’t recommend using Amazon’s smart devices at all. The company has not been up front about privacy violations in the past, and no networked device is impervious to exploits.
If you do choose to use Amazon devices, I would strongly recommend you look over their privacy settings on a regular basis. You never know when Amazon’s going to introduce new features that might compromise your privacy. And when they do, they’re more likely to quietly opt you into their new program than they are to inform you and ask for your positive consent.
If you care about economic fairness or worker conditions, I would encourage you to reduce your Amazon purchases wherever possible. Whether you’re shopping at Costco or a local business, you’re almost certainly buying from a store that demands less punishing expectations from their employees.
Ultimately, a corporate empire such as Amazon cannot be brought to heel by the buying decisions of any one individual. Corporations of this scale will only respond to coordinated efforts, whether they come from governments or networks of activists. If you’re serious about holding Amazon to account, you might start by checking out Athena, a coalition of organizations united in their opposition to Amazon.