Amazon Wants a Lot of New Laws

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Amazon is on a roll suggesting big changes to U.S. laws. This could be great for many Americans and for the country, or this could be mostly talk.

Amazon has been loudly supporting a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour. The company mentioned (briefly) in a blog post in April that it was in favor of increasing the federal tax rate for corporations. Amazon wrote this week that it would be “actively supporting” a proposed federal bill to legalize marijuana. Last year, the company said that it wanted Congress to write rules for the ethical use of facial recognition technology, including Amazon’s Rekognition.

Some of these policies could make a real difference in people’s lives. My concern is that Amazon may want credit with the public and the policymakers for supporting these laws, but that it won’t put in the concerted and sustained work required to have a real impact — except when it directly helps Amazon.

We know that companies lobby hard for or against laws that are good for their bottom lines. But when companies say that they support policies they believe can help everyone, do they devote the same money and muscle to those efforts? (And should they?)

Emily Stewart, writing for Vox’s Recode, recently asked similar questions of all businesses, including the technology giants. But perhaps we should hold the tech superstars to an even higher standard because of their power over our lives and their influence on policymakers and public perception.

Pressure from corporations can’t hurt to nudge a Congress that is often gridlocked or slow to pass laws. Labor organizations have been pressing for a $15 minimum wage for years. It’s possible that Amazon’s advocacy, and its decision in 2018 to set a $15 wage floor for its own employees in the United States, might be even more effective at rallying public support and changing the law. Ditto for Facebook’s relentless promotions about its support for revised U.S. internet regulations.

These companies deserve credit for taking on big issues, but what matters is that they follow through to the end. As Stewart wrote, “Vague gestures from corporations and executives are a way to smooth over real political and social issues, and to deflect deserved scrutiny.”

An episode from Amazon’s past also invites skepticism of its motivations in policy battles. For years, the company loudly proclaimed support for a national sales tax in the United States. Amazon knew that a national sales tax was most likely a non-starter in Congress. But Amazon’s position helped in its fight against state laws to collect sales taxes on online purchases.

A national sales tax never happened. Amazon about a decade ago began to reach compromises with states to apply sales taxes. By then, the company had benefited from years of price advantages over conventional retailers.

This bit of history shows that what Amazon said was a principled policy position was quite likely little more than a strategy maneuver.

Here are some questions that American taxpayers can pose to tech companies who are speaking up for policy changes: How is the company pushing for this law? What specific policy suggestions does it have? How much money will the company spend on lobbying for it? Will the company commit to status reports on its policy advocacy and the results?

Amazon’s lobbying disclosures do indicate, without many specifics, that minimum wage issues are among the topics that the company has pressed with members of Congress. Jodi Seth, a spokeswoman for Amazon, also pointed me to the company’s advertisements and opinion pieces about increasing the minimum wage, and said it’s one of the few issues that involves everyone on Amazon’s policy team.

I’ll add one more question to my list: Why? No, the real answer. Radical candor about companies’ motivations for proposed policy changes might help win confidence from lawmakers and the public.

For Amazon, why not be frank that an increase in the minimum wage might be good for many American workers and for Amazon’s business? The company may need to pay more to attract enough high-quality workers and keep them happy, and its competitors may not be able to afford higher wages.

Facebook and some other tech companies that are getting behind a national digital privacy protection law in the United States don’t typically say out loud that they want more lenient rules from Congress to usurp strict laws that some states have passed.

I’m making a spreadsheet listing select policy positions taken by big tech companies. I promise to report back here periodically with what the companies have done. (And please email me with suggestions of policies proposed by tech companies that you’d like to track. Put “policies” in the subject line.)

  • Facebook fights with itself: Some employees have been challenging the Facebook bosses for actions they believed helped the Indian government stifle online dissent and for removing some pro-Palestinian posts, my colleagues Sheera Frenkel and Mike Isaac report. It’s the latest example of divisions between some Facebook workers who want the company to stand up to domineering governments and a policy team that handles tricky international relations.

  • It’s hard to make a Silicon Valley from scratch: Rest of World looks at what has gone wrong with Kenya’s effort to build a city that was imagined as a high-tech utopia for residents and a hub for tech companies. “Smart cities are not cure-alls for socioeconomic problems but rather ways to distract citizens from bigger, structural ones,” the article says.

  • Meet the new king of TikTok: Khabane Lame, a 21-year-old former factory worker in Italy, has become the fastest-growing video creator on TikTok. My colleagues Jason Horowitz and Taylor Lorenz explain the appeal of his clever and relatable reaction videos. (For example, here he is horrified by Sour Patch Kid pizza.)

Birds are so great. Here is a cockatiel (I think?) dancing and singing along to the piano.

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