Saturday, 13 May 2017 15:26

Secrets Amazon doesn't want you to know


We can thank Amazon.com, great enabler of our hoarding habits, for the ease with which we lead our sedentary lives. We've almost acquired enough material stuff to numb the all-consuming fears of death, taxes, the Death Tax, and other people that keep us from going outside at all anymore. Amazon's uncompromising love of efficiency makes it appealing to shut-ins, exciting to venture capitalists, horrifying to anybody who has to work for a living, and just so bloody convenient to busy consumers.

They have tax issues in the UK .. and everywhere else

Like any self-respecting brand-conscious Cthulhu of consumerism, Amazon has specialized, hive-like locations all over the world. These spawning beds occupy land in many sovereign nations, each with its own set of tax laws by which it expects Amazon to abide.

Until a few years ago, Amazon claimed its only physical office was its headquarters located in Seattle, WA — its many warehouses across the US were actually, technically owned by independent contractors. This might sound like a silly distinction, but it had major sales tax implications for the company, since Amazon could claim that its only true (i.e. taxable) location was in Washington. It meant that Amazon could offer the lowest prices without charging its buyers any sales tax. Throw in Amazon's eagerness to sell items at a loss just to push out the competition (more on that later), and you have a community-robbing scenario where Amazon outsells local competition, takes away local jobs, and doesn't even pay its fair share on Tax Day. Do you want joblessness and poverty? Because that's how you get joblessness and poverty.

Suspected of tax avoidance for years, Amazon's European offices finally came clean in 2015, and quietly decided to pay its share of taxes in the European Union. All it took to motivate "the everything company" was a scandal throughout the global business sector, starting with 2014's massive leak of controversial financial records relating to various multinational corporations. Allegedly, big corporations enjoy exploiting Luxembourg's tax loopholes. (Who knew?)

It's almost understandable. You don't like paying taxes, Amazon doesn't like paying taxes. Gargantuan conglomerations of corporatized, trade union-smashing, economy-killing planet poisoners — they're just like us! Except, you probably don't funnel your taxable chump change through holding companies in low-tax haven. We bet Euros to European donuts that you didn't have an almost two-decade-long understanding with Luxembourg's prime minister, which was interrupted unceremoniously by LuxLeaks. Furthermore, we doubt that the revenue you made from millions of online transactions during each tax year throughout the European Union was then systematically shuffled into Belgian holding companies, where it could be taxed in a lighter, gentler, and more loving manner than they would've been elsewhere in the EU. Other than that, you're just like them!

They were sued for using cookies to mine customers' private data

In this 2003 article on Amazon's algorithms, the company's mastery of sorting through data is revealed. Having been in the product-recommending game since 1994, Amazon has four more years of experience than Google with using private citizens' data to generate curated content. Nobody does it better, and that's where the trouble comes in.

You know those notices you see on sites that use cookies? They seem to be more prominent than ever, because cookies now have a lot of power … and it's not all delicious. Cookies track users' habits right down to the keystroke, and even the coordinates of your mouse's cursor in some cases. The data collected can tell an incredible amount of information about you, what you buy, what you read, what you chat about, what you post about, your browsing habits, who you are online, and when you are offline. Amazon uses Flash cookies to collect such data on private citizens for its targeted ads, and they collect a lot.

The question is, at what point does data collection become privacy invasion? Del Vecchio v. Amazon sought a court's opinion on the matter. The court's' answer was, "We don't understand the question because we can't imagine that the way we're already doing things might not be the right one." More or less. In the actual words of the court: "Demographic information is constantly collected on all consumers by marketers, mail-order catalogues and retailers … we are unaware of any court that has held the value of this collected information constitutes damage to consumers or unjust enrichment to collectors."

It sounds like the judge wasn't willing to break with precedent and do battle with the Amazonian beast's insatiable hunger for your sensitive information. Perhaps cuz he just scored some sweet free shipping on his new tablet.

Amazon uses intimidation to quiet dissent

Scary monsters intimidate us. Amazon, the two-day-shipping-taloned Gorgon of Globalization, uses intimidation to paralyze dissenters. In order to make it at Amazon, you must "obsess over customers," according to the company's founder in a letter to shareholders written back in 1997. If you're not obsessive enough, if you're not pathologically driven to work as hard as you possibly can to bolster the Amazon brand, or if you accumulate one too many strikes for standing still on the warehouse floor, you'll be chased out real quickly.

"Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves," one former employee told The New York Times in 2015. "If you're a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot," said another former employee. An Amabot is the ideal Amazon employee — an automaton with human features, an exemplary android falling in line with the capitalists' march to nowhere. It's what every Amazon employee aspires to be. Just don't get caught violating the (Amazon) Prime Directive.

Amazon, as you'd expect, denies the allegations. Bezos went so far as to say that, if he worked at a company like the one described in the article, he would quit. Is that a promise?

A "screwup" once barred LGBT authors from getting on the Amazon Bestsellers list

Societal norms are always changing. Search engines must contend with filtering out unsuitable content, while returning appropriate results for users' queries. In particular, language about sex and sexual identity present a challenge to coders. How do we guide the customer to other "similar" products without running afoul of common decency?

In 2009, it looked like Amazon's bookselling department had suddenly found the answer. What do authors Annie Proulx, E.M. Forster, Jeanette Winterson, Gore Vidal, and D.H. Lawrence have in common? They're all hugely popular, yes, but also there's how their best books were algorithmically stripped of their bestselling ranks on Amazon in 2009, all because a "family-friendly" algorithm didn't approve of the books' sexual content.

A company employee chalked it up to a "glitch" and a "screwup." Thanks to the popularity of the Twitter hashtag #AmazonFail, and Bezos's ensuing PR nightmare, employees had to cut their Easter weekends short to go in and correct the code. According to the employee, once it was identified, it was easy to fix. Basically, some defective Amabot had switched the parameter for adult content from "false" to "true" on books containing any homosexual content at all, regardless of cultural significance. If it's that easy, what's to stop another seemingly politically motivated "glitch" from happening again — hashtags?

Amazon wants its employees to be workaholics, allegedly doesn't care about work-life balance

If the company's response to the #AmazonFail debacle tells us anything for certain, it's that Amazon has little regard for its employees' holiday weekends. Seriously, couldn't the company have released a statement and waited until after the holiday weekend to have employees fix the issue? Sure. Would Amazon's stock and reputation have recovered? Almost definitely. Yet, instead of letting employees enjoy their weekends, the company demanded immediate resolution of the issue to satisfy investors. Work-life balance? Please.

Amazon's disregard for its employees' well-being goes well beyond dragging coders in on Easter Sunday. In its enormous warehouses around the U.S., sat navs track employees by GPS in real time — think Google Maps for people — mapping out the most efficient paths to the item they need to ship. Get caught standing still or reading Grunge articles, and you get a text message from your boss to pick up the slack. Failing to do so results in immediate dismissal. If you're not fetching items, you're packing them with a functional foreman standing over you to ensure that you keep moving, all while machines tabulate your hourly output rate and ensure that you've packed the boxes in the right, most efficient way. In the immortal words of Pink Floyd, welcome to the machine.

It's all part of the Amazon Way, the brand's culture of ruthless efficiency, exemplified by a corporate initiative to coerce smaller companies into submission. It was called the Gazelle Program, so named for "the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle." Not only competitors but workers, too, must submit to the Amazon Way, or be eaten alive by the all-knowing, many-headed, cyborg cheetah.

Amazon profits from selling Holocaust denial propaganda, even where it's illegal to do so

You can buy pretty much anything on Amazon. It's like Silk Road except, instead of being a site where criminals can buy unregistered guns, illicit drugs, contracts for killings, and other contraband, it's a site for the legitimate sale of legal consumer goods … most of the time.

Amazon cares about meeting demand, edging out competition, and boosting stocks. Abiding by the content-specific laws of foreign governments is pretty low on their list of priorities. Like, if you live in a place where racist, anti-Semitic propaganda has been outlawed, Amazon will probably sell and ship it to you, anyway.

Yep, anybody can order Protocols of the Elders of Zion (fraudulent notes from a fictitious meeting of world-controlling Jews), or The Turner Diaries (a race war genocidal fantasy that has been called the "Bible of the racist right" by the FBI, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center), or Le Camp Des Saints from Amazon. Le Camp Des Saints is a French novel about the dangers of immigration. Spoiler alert: idiots' xenophobic fears confirmed! Collapse of civilization imminent!

That said, while certainly distasteful, these books are works of fiction, so it's possible to argue their cultural significance. Inexcusable, however, is Amazon's profiting on the sale of neo-Nazi diatribes like Synagogue of Satan and Did Six Million Really Die?, which presents itself as a scientific, skeptical expose, but is actually pseudoscientific humbug, hate speech in a lab coat. Amazon's complicity in the dissemination of neo-Nazi propaganda in the U.S. might not be a good look but it's (arguably) protected by the Constitution. In places like Germany, though, Holocaust denial is a criminal act punishable by a five-year prison sentence … unless you're Amazon, apparently, and you're just facilitating it.

Amazon encourages Prime retailers to price-gouge

It's a paradox, but for two decades, Amazon never turned a profit. (That changed only recently.) The company's modus operandi has always been to offer the lowest prices, even if it means selling products at a loss. If you're an Amazon retailer, you're pressured to cut prices. Most retailers end up abiding by the abrasive requirements, banking on Amazon's name recognition, customer base, and worldwide reach to make up for the lost revenue.

All of this is null and void, by the way, if the retailer offers free shipping for Amazon Prime products. According to a lawsuit filed in 2014, Amazon suggests raising prices on those items, in order to recoup the shipping costs. Tack on a few extra bucks to the retail price and call it "free shipping." Yeah, that sounds legit to us.

Kindle Direct Publishing is becoming the only choice for e-book publishers … and it's rigged

Amazon will distribute criticism of its own brand … for a cut of the profits, of course. In a testament to its monopolistic control, the company sells books that criticize its business practices and corporate culture. The implied message is that no criticism could bring down the Amazon brand, which is an ungodly sort of power. It's like the NFL promoting the Concussion movie, or Facebook promoting The Social Network, or a Catholic church offering the works of Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey in exchange for a donation.

Why can it afford to do this? It's the only game in town for e-book sellers, that's why. Amazon sells two-thirds of the world's ebooks, and it uses ruthless tactics like, until recently, employing industry insiders like Laurence J. Kirshbaum to push traditional publishers out of the picture. Kirshbaum was well-liked all across the world of traditional publishing, until he joined forces with Bezos.

Kirshbaum's fall from grace in the tabloids has been a strange one, but not necessarily as strange as his willingness to collude with Amazon to bring down the traditional book industry. It was Kirschbaum's then-good reputation that would facilitate the rise of the Kindle empire, and the downfall of bookstores.

Amazon disrespects religious and cultural traditions to make a buck

Amazon allegedly permitted retailers in Japan to sell the services of Buddhist monks for ceremonies — specifically, funerals. Naturally, the practice outraged some Buddhists. "Such a thing is allowed in no other country in the world. In this regard, we must say we are disappointed by an attitude toward religion by Amazon," said Akisato Saito, head of the Japan Buddhist Association.

If you're scratching your head and wondering how such an industry even arose, know that Buddhist temples in Japan depend upon alms. As one monk puts it, "Today, nobody comes to temples asking for us to perform funerals for their parents." Rent-a-monk services are basically a frowned upon way for monks to support themselves, a business out of which Amazon happily took a cut.

That's not the worst of it. A former corporate manager has alleged that he was the victim of racial discrimination. The plaintiff is an American of Syrian descent, who alleges that he endured "ethnically and religious tinged comments" from other employees at Amazon's offices in Detroit and Seattle. Working at the corporate office sounds almost as bad as working in one of the warehouses.

It's cooler to hate Wal-Mart than Amazon, but Amazon might be worse

Wal-Mart. Bunch of NAFTA-exploiting crooks and benefits-denying union-breakers, right? They open up shop, lay waste to local economies, and put hard-working ordinary people out of business. Good thing there's Amazon, so we can get all the same stuff at the same low prices and not feel bad about killing the world to satisfy our petty wants! We submit to its monstrous will, impossible speed, and limitless reach, because they don't make us drive anywhere.

Many-headed and cheetah-pawed, the treacherous Amazonian amalgamation perches atop the sun-parched remains of humanity's dreams. Weep not for humanity's dreams. Amazon has already promised to build new, luxurious cages with the dream-bones. Your Prime cage should arrive in the next forty-eight hours. USPS tracking information forthcoming.

Source: This article was published on grunge.com


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