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Is the Washington Post Soft on Amazon?

Photo by Backbone Campaign | CC BY 2.0

When Facebook’s data practices began dominating the news last month, The Washington Post, like many other news organizations, was eager to share the story. Post reporters churned out at least 39 stories about Facebook in the week following the Congressional hearings with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The extensive coverage was justified, as the issues at play are not trivial. But the debate is not just about Facebook, it’s about how intimately big tech companies surveil users; a practice which is central to big tech’s continued growth.

One of the companies that profits most from closely tracking users is Amazon. The company’s founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, is far and away the richest man alive, worth an estimated $132 billion. And since 2013, Bezos has owned The Washington Post (which he bought for $250 million).

Bezos’s ownership of the Post has caught the ire of President Trump, who has falsely accused the newspaper of being Amazon’s “lobbyist.” Trump’s targeting of the “Amazon Washington Post” has led many to come to the newspaper’s defense, and rightfully so. But still, there’s a question as to whether the Post has been soft on Amazon, like in its coverage of the jurisdictional bidding war to land Amazon’s second headquarters.

Even so, at least the Post has regularly informed readers of Bezos’s ties to Amazon when reporting on the company. In the week following Zuckerberg’s testimony, however, those disclosures started to falter.

A review of 39 stories about Facebook published that week shows that the Post disclosed Bezos’s ties to Amazon just once (to note Bezos’s security detail costs far less than Zuckerberg’s). While a number of these Poststories didn’t warrant disclosure, several called out for it.

Undisclosed Ties

A Post story from April 10, for instance, highlights how the privacy debate is playing out in the rural North Carolina town of Forest City, which hosts a vast Facebook data center. Tamara Edwards, a children’s librarian, says she’s “creeped out” because, the Post reports, “After she researches teen fiction on her work computer, her Kindle at home sometimes recommends that she read vampire romance novels.”

The Kindle is an Amazon product. And that ‘creepy’ ability to coordinate her work computer with her personal Kindle? That would be the doing of Amazon; but the company goes unmentioned.

In an April 11 story, the Post quotes a tech writer and investor who calls out Amazon by name. Concerned that potential regulations may only consolidate the power of big tech over smaller tech companies, Om Malik points a finger directly at “Amazon, Google and Facebook,” “who can spend the most on lobbyists.” Nowhere does the Post mention Bezos’s ties to Amazon.

A more recent story, from May 4, examines the Federal Trade Commission, which is charged with enforcing the nation’s antitrust laws. A strong FTC could pose a serious threat to Amazon, which may be the country’s leading monopolist, as legal scholar Lina Khan powerfully demonstrates in her 2017 article for The Yale Law Journal.

But the Postkeeps the focus away from Amazon, where half of all online product searches begin. “The agency in charge of policing Facebook and Google is 103 years old. Can it modernize?” reads the Postheadline. While the story mentions Amazon twice, it fails to disclose Bezos’ ties to the company.

Broader Omissions

Many of the Post’s recent stories on Facebook discuss the role of Cambridge Analytica, a Trump-connected firm that harvested data from up to 87 million unsuspecting Facebook users ahead of the 2016 election. Left unsaid in Postreports is that one of the tools Cambridge Analytica used to harvest the data was Amazon’s online micro-work marketplace, Mechanical Turk. It’s unclear how significant a role the misuse of MTurk played in the illicit data harvesting is unclear. Still, the Post could provide readers with a quick disclosure when reporting on Cambridge Analytica.

But maybe the most fundamental omission from the Post’s Facebook coverage is the paper’s failure to convey to readers just how central user surveillance is for both Facebook and Amazon. Stories critical of Facebook’s data practices are, in fact, criticizing the business model that fuels Amazon’s staggering growth as well.

“Amazon has 350 million credit cards and shopper profiles on file,” Scott Galloway writes in The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. “More than any company on earth, it knows what you like. It’s able to connect identity, shopping patterns, and behaviors.”

To create the “everything store,” with its ability to anticipate shoppers’ desires, “Amazon deployed a system for monitoring and profiling,” Yasha Levine writes in Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet. “It recorded people’s shopping habits, their movie preferences, the books they were interested in, how fast they read those books on their Kindles, and the highlights and margin notes they made.”

The goal, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt famously said, is to “get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.” Whether it’s Google, Amazon, Facebook or other big tech companies, the business model is much the same, Levine explains.

“If you zoom out and look at the bigger picture, you can see that, taken together, these [big tech] companies have turned our computers and phones into bugs that are plugged in to a vast corporate-owned surveillance network. Where we go, what we do, what we talk about, who we talk to, and who we see – everything is recorded and, at some point, leveraged for value.”

Amazon’s latest push to monetize its surveillance raised the concerns of many this past week. Documents obtained by the ACLU shed light on Amazon’s face recognition technology, “Rekognition,” which provides “real-time face recognition across tens of millions of faces,” according to Amazon. Rekognition scans pictures and video for faces and then runs these against face recognition databases. The technology is currently used by at least two law enforcement agencies (in Oregon and Orlando), a number Amazon is looking to quickly grow. In response, a coalition of civil rights organizations led by the ACLU called on Amazon not to offer Rekognition to governments. (Even if Amazon only uses Rekognition inhouse that’s still a problem, says Levine.)

 

Don’t Regulate

If the government were to strictly regulate data collection it would impact big tech companies, including both Facebook and Amazon. Meanwhile, Post columnists have come out against such regulation, without disclosing Bezos’s ties to Amazon. (There were some Post columnists who called for increased regulation.)

“The [Zuckerberg] hearing should give everyone serious pause if they think that federal legislation is going to solve the serious and growing issues of technology run amok,” writes Margaret Sullivan. “Meaningful self-regulation is laughable. But unfortunately, so is the idea that Congress can manage the job.”

Another Post article notes that Zuckerberg’s “steadiness in the face of tough questioning helped quell the air of crisis that surrounded not just Facebook but also Silicon Valley in general, where collecting user data is essential to many businesses.” Businesses like Amazon, which goes unnamed.

One of the three Post reporters who wrote this story, Tony Romm, has a Post bio that states: “He has spent more than eight years covering the ways that tech companies like Apple, Facebook and Google navigate the corridors of government.” That’s three of the big four; the company missing is Amazon.

And Amazon is the one we should be most worried about, Professor Galloway writes in a 2017 op-ed for The Wall Street Journal.

“After spending most of the past decade researching these companies, I’ve come to the conclusion that our fears are misplaced in focusing on what I call the Four. We should instead be worrying about the One: one firm that will come to dominate search, hardware and cloud computing, that will control a vast network of far-flung businesses, that can ravage entire sectors of the economy simply by announcing its interest in them. That firm is Amazon.”

Uber Disclosure

In failing to consistently inform readers of Bezos’s connection to Amazon, the Post is continuing a pattern of not disclosing its owner’s ties to companies at convenient times. Last year, as ride-hailing giant Uber faced increasing scrutiny over a series of scandals, the Post suddenly stopped disclosing that Bezos was an early Uber investor.

There was no news of Bezos selling his shares in Uber (potentially worth over a billion dollars), and Post executive editor Marty Baron said there had been no change in policy; the Post simply no longer knew if its owner was still invested in a company the paper regularly covered. “We knew he was an early investor,” Baron emailed me last year. “I have no idea if he remains an investor.” Apparently the Post knew of Bezos’ early Uber investment, at least until scandal struck, then it wasn’t so sure.

The Post’s failure to consistently disclose Bezos’s ties to companies at convenient times comes as the paper finds itself under continued assault by the president. Trump’s attacks have led many to defend the Post, and with good reason.

Still, the Post shouldn’t be allowed to skirt its responsibility of disclosure to readers. After all, as the Post’s slogan states, “Democracy dies in darkness.”

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Pete Tucker is a journalist based in DC. He can be reached at his website.

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