If you’ve been following our reporting on Amazon for any length of time, you’d be mistaken for thinking we give Amazon a hard time. But it’s the depressing reality. In fact, I’d love to report on anything good this multi-national, multi-billion-dollar company has brought to the world, yet sadly, the bad news just keeps on coming. From racial discrimination and sexual harassment allegations to continuously mistreating staff, paying them low wages and even using algorithms to fire them, Amazon really doesn’t have a good track record. And now, thanks to a recent investigation conducted by Reuters, we can add copying other products and rigging search results to promote its own brands to the list.
Amazon has been repeatedly accused of knocking off products it sells on its website and of exploiting its wealth of internal data to promote its own merchandise at the expense of other sellers. To this day, the company has, of course, denied all allegations. However, a recent report by Reuters—which involved examining the thousands of internal documents, such as emails, strategy papers and business plans—suggests otherwise.
Reuters found that the company has run a systematic campaign of creating knockoffs and manipulating the search results of customers to boost its own product lines in India—one of the company’s largest growth markets. According to the report, the documents reveal how Amazon’s private brands in India have secretly exploited the data from Amazon.in to copy products sold by other companies—subsequently offering them on Amazon’s own platform. The employees also stoked sales of Amazon private-brand products by rigging Amazon’s search results so that the company’s products would appear, as one 2016 strategy report for India put it, “in the first 2 or three […] search results” when customers were shopping on Amazon.in.
The multi-national retailer has had a rocky history of allegations, in particular after employees who have worked on private-brand products have accused the company of exploiting proprietary data from individual sellers to launch competing products and manipulating search results to increase the sale of the company’s goods. However, the recent findings, published by the Reuters investigation team on 13 October 2021, provides evidence for the first time that the company is actively manipulating search results in favour of its own products—and that high-level executives were in on the act, or at least told about it.
As the document states, two executives reviewed the India strategy—senior vice presidents Diego Piacentini, who has since left the company, and Russell Grandinetti, who runs Amazon’s international consumer business. The findings indicate this was true for India, however, questions can be made as to whether this rigging of search results is also happening in other nations across the globe.
In response to the findings made by Reuters using the documents published, Amazon replied: “As Reuters hasn’t shared the documents or their provenance with us, we are unable to confirm the veracity or otherwise of the information and claims as stated. We believe these claims are factually incorrect and unsubstantiated.” It did not elaborate or address the questions raised by Reuters about the evidence in the documents presented in clear sight—instead, it deflected the allegations in a dismissive manner as quickly as they arrived. And considering the company’s not-so-perfect track record, I’m betting more of the same cheatery will soon be found in other countries.
In order to deliver all those next-day deliveries on time, Amazon uses millions of subcontracted drivers for its Flex delivery programme, started in 2015. Drivers sign up via a smartphone app where they can choose shifts, coordinate deliveries and report problems. Think of Uber’s false sense of freedom for its employees and you’ve pretty much got the same thing happening here with Amazon Flex. But the reliance on technology doesn’t end there as drivers are also monitored for performance and fired by algorithms with little human intervention, according to a recent Bloomberg report.
As much as we love and depend on algorithms, it’s crucial that we understand how even those can mess up from time to time. According to the report, the AI system used by Amazon Flex can often fire workers seemingly without good cause. One worker said her rating—ranging from Fantastic, Great, Fair, or At Risk—fell after she was forced to halt deliveries due to a nail in her tire.
Over the next several weeks, she managed to boost it to Great but her account was eventually terminated for violating Amazon’s terms of service. She contested the firing, but the company wouldn’t reinstate her.
Another driver was unable to deliver packages to an apartment complex because its gate was closed and the residents wouldn’t answer their phones. Shortly after, in another building, an Amazon locker failed to open. His rating quickly dropped and he spent six weeks trying to raise it, only to be fired for falling below a prescribed level.
In those instances, when a driver feels they’re wrongly terminated, there’s not much recourse, either. Drivers must pay $200 to dispute any termination, and many have said it’s simply not worth the effort. “Whenever there’s an issue, there’s no support,” said Cope, 29. “It’s you against the machine, so you don’t even try.”
Amazon became the world’s largest online retailer in part by outsourcing its many different operations to algorithms. For years, the company has used algorithms to manage the millions of third-party merchants on its online marketplace, drawing complaints that sellers have been booted off after being falsely accused of selling counterfeit goods and jacking up prices.
More and more, the company is also ceding its human-resources operation to machines, using software not only to manage workers in its warehouses but to oversee contract drivers, independent delivery companies and even the performance of its office workers. People familiar with the strategy say Jeff Bezos believes machines make decisions more quickly and accurately than people, reducing costs and giving Amazon a competitive advantage.
Inside Amazon, the programme has been praised for its success. Around 4 million drivers have downloaded the app worldwide including 2.9 million in the US, according to Bloomberg’s report. More than 660,000 people in the US have downloaded the app in the last five months alone.
Amazon said drivers’ claims of poor treatment and unfair termination were anecdotal and don’t represent the experience of the vast majority of Flex drivers. “We have invested heavily in technology and resources to provide drivers visibility into their standing and eligibility to continue delivering, and investigate all driver appeals,” Spokesperson Kate Kudrna told Bloomberg.