Amazon, AWS In ‘Frontline’ Crosshairs With New PBS Documentary

AWS has given Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos ‘billions to expand Amazon from a company that sells everything to a company that does everything,’ “Frontline” correspondent and director James Jacoby says in “Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos.”


Amazon Web Services’ cloud computing dominance factors into a new “Frontline” documentary that takes a critical look at the growth, reach and power wielded by parent company Amazon under CEO Jeff Bezos as it faces antitrust regulatory scrutiny.

AWS, which raked in more than $35.02 billion last year and $9.2 billion of Amazon’s $14.5 billion in operating income, has given Bezos “billions to expand Amazon from a company that sells everything to a company that does everything,” “Frontline” correspondent and director James Jacoby says in “Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos.”

The award-winning documentary series’ two-hour special, which premieres Feb. 18 on PBS, looks at Bezos’ ability to “shape everything from the future of work, to the future of commerce, to the future of technology.”

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The documentary examines Amazon’s e-commerce juggernaut and the power of consumer behavior data that it collects, privacy issues raised by the artificial intelligence-powered Amazon Alexa virtual assistant, and law enforcement’s use of Amazon Rekognition facial-recognition technology. It also explores allegations of worker exploitation at Amazon fulfillment centers and product safety problems.

Amazon, which gave “Frontline” access to AWS CEO Andy Jassy and five other top Amazon executives, declined comment when reached by CRN.

AWS has enabled societal change, Jassy tells the “Frontline” correspondent, referring to the impact of AWS customers.

“Netflix changed the way that we consume digital content, and Airbnb changed the way that we get accommodations, and Ola and Grab and Lyft and Uber changed the way that we get transportation,” he said. “AWS has been a part of enabling all these huge innovations and changes in consumer experiences that make life better for people.”

“Frontline” points to AWS’ 2013 win of a $600 million contract to build a private cloud infrastructure for the Central Intelligence Agency as helping it gain trust with customers.

“Today, more than a million businesses pay Amazon to store and manage their data,” “Frontline” narrator Will Lyman says. “Bezos had again anticipated the next frontier in technology and had made himself indispensable to it.”

Amazon Alexa

The documentary credits Amazon’s 2014 release of its Echo smart speaker and the artificial intelligence-powered Alexa virtual assistant as aiding the company in its race to dominate artificial intelligence (AI).

“Alexa is one more way for Amazon to gather extremely valuable data, and this data collection is extremely important to this business model,” said Meredith Whittaker, cofounder and codirector of the AI Now Institute at New York University. “It's extremely hard to do, and convincing people to just deploy something like this in their home is a brilliant trick.”

David Limp, Amazon’s head of devices, disagreed with the “Frontline” correspondent's assertion that the Echo is a “listening device.” Last April, Bloomberg reported that Amazon, to help Alex better respond to customers, employs “thousands” of people around the world to transcribe their voice commands captured after the Echo wake word is detected.

“It's not a listening device,” Limp said. “The device, in its core…has a detector on it. We call it, internally, a wake-word engine. And that detector is listening...not really listening, it's detecting one thing and one thing only, which is the word you've said that you want to get the attention of that Echo.”

Limp acknowledged that Amazon could have done a better job disclosing to consumers that humans were listening to the recordings.

“If I could go back in time, and I could be more clear, and the team could be more clear, on how we were using human beings to annotate a small percentage of the data, I would, for sure,” Limp said.

Amazon Rekognition

Jassy defended law enforcement’s use of Amazon Rekognition.

“We believe that governments and the organizations that are charged with keeping our community safe have to have access to the most sophisticated modern technology that exists,” he said.

But “Frontline” noted concerns that Rekognition wasn’t market-ready, police were “essentially field testing it on the public on behalf of the company,” and there were no clear regulations governing its use.

Jassy has said he welcomes government regulation of the facial-recognition technology, which Amazon introduced in November 2016.

“We’ve never had any reported misuse of law enforcement using the facial recognition technology,” Jassy said. “I think a lot of societal good is already being done with facial recognition technology. Already you've seen hundreds of missing kids reunited with their parents, and hundreds of human-trafficking victims saved, and all kinds of security and identity and education uses. At the end of the day, with any technology…the people that use the technology have to be responsible for it. And if they use it irresponsibly, they have to be held accountable.”

He said the vast majority of police departments are using it according to Amazon’s prescribed guidance.

“And when they're not, we have conversations, and if we find that they're using in some irresponsible way, we won't allow them to use the service and the platform,” he said.

Other interesting tidbits from the “Frontline” documentary include:

• Amazon, which has “customer obsession” as a core tenet, used to refer to it as “customer ecstasy.” “Customer obsession was our North Star,” said Jennifer Cast, Amazon’s vice president of specialty recruiting. “We were all aligned around building for customers.” An empty chair would often be visible at meetings to remind employees that they needed to understand and have empathy for customers.

• Amazon’s strategy in convincing publishers to sell their books through its online site was referred to by some as the “Gazelle Project,” because they heard Bezos wanted to pursue them like a cheetah pursues a sickly gazelle. “You don't go after the strongest,” Randy Miller, former Amazon director of merchandise pricing and product management, told “Frontline.” “The cheetah looks for the weak, looks for the sick, looks for the small, that's what you go for. So don't start with…No. 1 publisher, start with No. 7 publisher and then No. 6 publisher. And by the time you get to No. 3, 2 and 1, the noise has gotten back to them. They're going to know this is coming, and chances are you may be able to settle that without a full-on war."

• Scott Galloway, marketing professor at New York University's Stern School of Business, said while there’s evidence that Amazon has inspired innovation in certain sectors, it “has these Darth Vader-like abilities to just look at a sector and begin choking it of oxygen, without even touching it. Amazon can begin beating competitors without even competing.”