Recently, some courts have disputed Amazon’s claim that it is not a seller. In 2020, an appeals court in San Diego ruled that Amazon was liable for a laptop battery that exploded, causing severe burns to a woman. In 2021, another California court ruled that Amazon was liable for a toy hoverboard that caught fire and burned a woman. Last July, the Consumer Product Safety Commission sued Amazon to enforce a recall of dangerous products sold by third parties on its site. Those found included 24,000 faulty carbon monoxide detectors, 400,000 hair dryers without immersion protection to prevent shock and electrocution, and numerous children’s pajamas that did not meet safety standards for flammable substances. Amazon decided to drop the case, claiming it only served as a “third-party logistics provider” — such as a shopping center — but in January an administrative judge ruled it a distributor, much like a retail store, under the Consumer Product Safety Act. (An Amazon representative told The Times, “While we still disagree with the idea of being a distributor, we share CPSC’s commitment to customer and product safety and will continue to work toward that goal.”)
Outside the courts, federal agencies have called on online retailers — including Amazon — to monitor their marketplaces for fraud, especially counterfeit and faulty goods. And since 2020, legislators from both sides have introduced bills that would force ecommerce platforms to do more to verify merchant identities. Versions of one such bill, the INFORM Consumers Act, have been introduced in 18 state legislatures, with support from lobbyists representing Walmart and other major retail chains. So far, only Arkansas, the home state of Walmart, has passed one. But this year, a version of the bill was included as part of another bill passed by both houses of Congress and now in the reconciliation process. Amazon supported the bill after lawmakers incorporated the company’s concerns into the text. An Amazon representative told The Times that the company “supports a federal approach that will prevent sellers from imposing inconsistent obligations.”
Even if Walmart has self-serving reasons to support the INFORM Consumers Act, it seems hard to argue with the claim that e-commerce platforms should monitor companies that sell large quantities of products through them or are liable for accidents, just as brick and mortar stores are. most of the time. However, one key element of the law is missing: in addition to providing greater clarity to customers, Amazon must also be more accountable to the merchants that are its customers, by providing them with clearer ways to challenge automated decisions and fairer terms of arbitration.
The automated processes Amazon uses to operate its Marketplace at scale will make mistakes; all algorithms do that. They will also be playable; all algorithms are. For small business owners who depend on Amazon for their livelihood and take on debt, unjust penalties and unfair gaming can be devastating. If new rules are introduced without clear appeals, they will motivate sellers to seek temporary solutions that undermine the market integrity the bill aims to create.
Amazon doesn’t want to hurt customers. On the contrary, almost everything about Amazon is optimized to satisfy its customers. Like some other retailers, the company often doesn’t even require refunded goods to be returned. Amazon didn’t invent outsourcing or single-handedly create the inequalities it takes advantage of, any more than Facebook and YouTube invented lying or Uber created the insecurity that motivates many of its drivers to sign up. But as Amazon makes aspects of global exploitation more efficient, its growing monopolistic power means more and more of commerce works on its terms. As the general public has come to recognize social media, those terms contain a lot of opacity and impunity for platforms.
Stories of injury captivate us because they point to tangible damage – glare and burns and broken bones. They respond to concrete fears and offer individual solutions. Amazon has every interest in presenting problems in its market as the fault of a few bad players. So do politicians. It’s hard to get voters excited about a company that most of them like and use regularly. It’s easier to blame that company’s failures on distant Chinese manufacturers—to point to racialized others already the object of hostility—than a system involving most American adults. But the prospect of injury without relief—a prospect that fulfillment center workers face far more often than customers—shouldn’t turn to Amazon for solutions; rather, it should raise the question of whether such cheap, fast consumption is desirable.
Bad actors exist. But they act within a system set up to create them.
Moira Weigel is an assistant professor of communications studies at Northeastern University.
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