Month: April 2019

Amazon’s Underbelly 3.0: Lobbying and Bribing to Secure Market Dominance

This is Part 3 in a three-part series looking at the impacts of Amazon on government, surveillance and the democratic process. Read the first part and second part.

Amazon has continued to expand its influence on policy and on government over the past decade. We laud Jeff Bezos as the richest man in the world and how he rose to the top by his own bootstraps. Many imagine him as a self-starter, an entrepreneur, a visionary. But the fact remains that Jeff has used his vast wealth to influence policy and laws to favor his business practices. Amazon has pushed others aside in order to procure its vast influence on politics and legislation.

Granted, Amazon is not alone in this endeavor. It’s no secret that corporations endlessly lobby to get what they want – and are largely successful in buying their way to power. However, the amount that Amazon has spent purchasing political influence has recently skyrocketed. In fact, all members of Big Tech spent record amounts lobbying the U.S. government in 2018: to be precise, Google, Amazon and Facebook doled out a combined $48 million, an increase of 13 percent on the previous year. (Apple by contrast decreased its lobbying spending last year.)

For context, in 2013, Amazon spent $3.5 million on lobbying. The next year it spent $4.7 million, and in 2015 the number jumped to $9.1 million. Since 2013, Amazon’s spending on lobbying has quadrupled – rising to $13 million dollars in 2017. The company spent $14.4 million lobbying in 2018 alone, and spent more than $44 million over the last four years.

Amazon has developed a business tactic wherein the company come up with a business idea, then goes to Congress to lobby for its approval. In 2006, Amazon lobbied the USDA for the first time, ahead of launching Amazon Fresh grocery delivery in 2007. In 2012, it lobbied the USPS for the first time, before announcing Sunday delivery in partnership with the USPS.

In 2013, it lobbied the FAA on drones in the same year that Jeff Bezos announced work on drone delivery. Additionally, Amazon worked with the Treasury Department after striking a deal with Texas asking the state to drop its demand for millions in back taxes. In 2016, the company lobbied the Department of Defense before its contracts with the government became more commonplace and lucrative.


Interestingly, Amazon has consistently and substantially given more money to Democrats than Republicans. In total, the company has donated almost $300,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, DNC Services Corp and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign. Amazon has also donated on average $75,000 to Democrats such as Beto O’Rourke, Kim Schrier, Maria Cantwell and Heidi Heitkamp. The top donor is the With Honor Fund, an organization that works to elect “the next generation veterans to Congress”.

At the same time, some of Amazon’s executives have held previous roles in government. Jay Carney, who served as Joe Biden’s director of communications from 2008 to 2011, and from 2011 to 2014 served as the White House press secretary for President Obama, has been Amazon’s senior vice president of worldwide corporate affairs since 2015.

Additionally, Open Secrets revealed that 83 of 115 lobbyists have previously held government jobs.

Amazon, like other Big Tech companies, reveres former government workers for their intricate understanding of the legislative process. Viveca Novak, a director at the Center for Responsive Politics, perhaps said it best: “People who have held key posts in the administration or in Congress are prized in the private sector because of their connections and their knowledge of how the process works, two things that are instrumental to getting anything done – or undone – in Washington. The private sector believes these former government workers are often worth the princely sums they are paid, given how much money can be at stake when business interests intersect with public policy.”

“To the degree that they are trying to influence government policy without registering as lobbyists – and they don’t have to as long as they are providing ‘strategic advice’, for instance, to a colleague who is doing the more direct lobbying – the public isn’t fully informed about who’s behind an effort,” Novak said.


So here’s the score: Amazon takes all of the money that it saves by not paying taxes, and the money that it receives in federal tax credits, and uses that cash to further manipulate and change policies that make room for its newest innovations. Instead of asking permission from government and the taxpayers, it bribes members of Congress and governmental institutions to sanction its latest projects and ideas.

It’s no secret that powerful companies like Amazon have gained – and maintained – their power because they use their wealth and status to inordinately influence the legislative and political process. To them, government is nothing more than a tool to get more of what they want. To that end, they hire lobbyists and use super PACS to alter laws so that they are unaffected by the standards applied to the middle class. They buy up media outlets to control the flow of information (Jeff Bezos purchased the Washington Post, for example) and hire previous government workers to maximize their political influence.

Imagine if the money spent on lobbying were instead donated or recycled back into the economy to support our most vulnerable citizens: the mentally ill, the elderly, the uninsured or underinsured, the hungry, the unemployed, or the terminally ill. Instead, already superbly wealthy companies use that wealth to accumulate more power – simply for the sake of acquiring more power and more wealth. The tax breaks that We the People provide these businesses, and the proverbial “green light” we give them on their new technological innovations, do nothing to improve the general public’s standard of living. They simply further consolidate unprecedented amounts of largesse and political power.

Many citizens still imagine that our government plays a role as the regulatory body over American companies and commerce. But in fact the reverse is turning out to be true: Corporations like Amazon are becoming supranational and the government is, in response, subservient to them.

Citizens must work together to reclaim the power that properly belongs to the people in order to reverse this disturbing trend.

Amazon’s Underbelly 2.0: Our Government’s Faustian Bargain for Cloud Storage

This is Part II in a three-part series looking at the impacts of Amazon on government, surveillance and the democratic process. Read the first part here.

If you ask Americans who controls the majority of the cloud storage market share, they’ll likely call out Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft. But in fact it is Amazon that reigns supreme in the cloud computing world.

As I discuss in my previous article for this series, Amazon actively sells surveillance technology to our government. Additionally, Amazon is unmatched in providing cloud storage to our government, gubernatorial organizations and local municipalities.


Amazon has had a head start in the cloud market since its inception. To his credit, CEO Jeff Bezos realized about a decade ago that storing information on the Internet was cheaper and more efficient than storing information in traditional warehouses.

In 2006, Amazon formed its cloud computing branch of operations: Amazon Web Services, or AWS. After moving his information to cloud storage, Bezos began to expand and offer the space to other customers, namely, our government.

In 2010, the Obama administration started advocating for data storage in the cloud instead of brick-and-mortar data centers as a way to cut costs. Amazon was well-poised to provide the cloud space because of its substantial lead over competitors. Soon after the announcement, the company successfully snagged an opportunity to host (, the agency website tasked with overseeing the use of stimulus money. Amazon’s business with the government, and its revenues, swelled.

“Since the announcement of last March,” wrote Jeff Barr in a 2010 AWS News Blog, “Amazon has seen an accelerating adoption of the cloud by our Federal customers. These include, the Federal Register 2.0 at the National Archives, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program at USDA, the project at DoE’s National Renewable Energy Lab, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA.”

In 2013, Amazon began to form cozy deals with the government to use its cloud services. For one, it designated a secret region of the cloud especially for the CIA, earning a particularly lucrative contract from the agency worth $600 million dollars. Amazon now serves all 17 agencies of the intelligence community and provides commercial cloud capability across all classification levels: from unclassified to sensitive, secret and top secret.


The company’s expansion into our government continues to this day. Now Amazon claims that over 2,000 government agencies are using AWS. Federal agencies such as the Department for Veterans Affairs, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, NASA JPL and the U.S. Department of Defense are all clients. So are state and local institutions like the City of Chicago, the New York Public Library and the City of Los Angeles, all of whom depend on AWS for cloud computing services.

Securing its regional and local dominance, in January 2017 the company won a contract with U.S. Communities – a coalition of 90,000 local governments.

Today, AWS dominates no less than one-third of the worldwide cloud market. The IT research firm Gartner shows figures much higher, revealing that AWS’s quadrant showed it captured 83 percent of the cloud computing infrastructure market. Amazon controls such a dizzying market share because of the almost-guaranteed patronage of the U.S. government.

Continuing this trend, the online behemoth is currently in line to sign a staggering $10 billion contract with the Defense Department, known as Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI). All bids were due in October 2018 and a decision is expected to be made this April. Other companies, from IBM to Oracle, have filed protests stating that the solicitation has been uncompetitive. The Government Accountability Office has since ruled against Oracle, allowing the process to move forward.

Amazon is also poised to serve as a portal for government purchases. Last year, a provision in a law passed by Congress required the General Services Administration (GSA) to set up “commercial e-commerce portals” for government purchase orders costing less than $25,000. This law became known as the “Amazon amendment” among critics.

Amazon didn’t earn this deal based on merit or business acumen. Instead, it used its political influence to change the outcome. As The Guardian revealed, in 2017, the head of Amazon Business’s public sector division, Anne Rung, privately advised on the GSA internet portal before the legislation was finalized and the company was chosen. Coincidentally, Rung was a former official in the Obama administration and she even ran the Office of Management and Budget’s Federal Procurement Policy office before joining Amazon.

Technically, there is nothing illegal about all this (there isn’t a law, yet, banning Washington’s revolving door). But the fact is Amazon is receiving advantages that other stakeholders, such as public interest groups, are not receiving.

Not only that, Amazon won another contract to become the chief supplier of goods like stationery and books to thousands of local governments and municipalities – a contract worth up to $5.5 billion.

It’s safe to say the government has become Amazon’s best customer, providing a steady stream of commerce that has been most lucrative for the company.


Last year, AWS generated $1.4 billion in operating income for Amazon in Q1 alone. Later that year the figure increased by 46 percent to $6.7 billion.

Amazon’s lack of transparency about the expansion of its cloud storage is disappointing – but not surprising. Despite all the information we have on AWS and its quid pro quo relationship with our government, we still don’t know the sheer magnitude of its size and scope.

This because most of the information remains classified – including its CIA contract – due to Amazon’s refusal to reveal intricate details of its contracts and deals. Amazon often declines to comment about how much of its business is connected to the federal government. It’s only through FOIA requests that we are able to glean the partial information that is available.

Are we comfortable, as citizens, entrusting an untrustworthy, mega of mega-companies with the responsibility of storing information for our local and federal government? We were never given a choice in the matter, much less a say. Even more concerning, Amazon’s invasive surveillance technology, like Rekognition and Alexa, sends information to similar clouds to be processed and matched to a database.

The fact that Amazon has become the de facto government provider for both surveillance technology and cloud storage is a troubling development that signals a disturbing relationship between business and the officials who run our state. It was Benito Mussolini’s ghostwriter, Giovanni Gentile, who stated that “fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism, because it is a merger of state and corporate power.”

One need look no further than the future location of Amazon’s HQ2 – in Arlington County, Virginia, one mile south of the Pentagon to observe this encroaching merger. The symbolism of the symbiosis between state and corporate power couldn’t be clearer.

Our government, and the officials we elect, are addicted to the line of supporting free-market economics at all costs. But in reality, that government consistently prefers to cut deals with corporations that operate surreptitiously and clandestinely. We, as citizens, must remain vigilant or we may soon be faced with a monster too big to take down.

Amazon’s Underbelly 1.0: Bolstering the Surveillance State with Rekognition

When most people hear Amazon, they think of an online store that features easy, one-click retail sales, convenient two-day shipping and millions of downloadable e-books. They picture a cute smiley logo.

However, this is only the small, visible part of Amazon’s iceberg of revenue and influence. In the underbelly beneath the surface lies the company’s true operation: cloud data storage and the development of advanced surveillance tools for governments.

Amazon is actively working to sell a new type of facial recognition technology, known as Rekognition, to various branches of government and municipalities.

Rekognition has plenty of abilities and uses that are admittedly innocuous: the creation of searchable video and image libraries; user verification; detection of explicit content in images and videos; extraction of text from images, videos and banners; and identification of vehicles based on license plate numbers. It also recognizes popular celebrities.

Other uses are more disconcerting. Rekognition claims that it can detect emotions such as happy, sad or surprise. It also asserts that it can determine demographic information of a person, such as gender, from facial images alone. The software can analyze these images and send the emotional and demographic information to a section of Amazon Web Services, or AWS – its Internet hosting service.

Rekognition is also capable of recognizing faces in a crowd, and compares and stores them in a database container called “a face collection.”

“With Amazon Rekognition,” the website continues, “you can search images, stored videos, and streaming videos for faces that match those stored in a container known as a face collection. A face collection is an index of faces that you own and manage.”

The potential abuse of this software for surveillance and data harvesting purposes is so troubling that some of Amazon’s shareholders have pleaded with the company to forgo selling the facial recognition technology to the government.

Their letter of protest, however, was submitted too late. To date, Rekognition has already been sold to two local law enforcement agencies: the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, in Oregon, and the Orlando Police Department in Florida.

The technology is now in its second pilot in Orlando after its first attempt was canceled following resounding citizen oppositionAccording to documents obtained by Buzzfeed through a FOIA request, Amazon provided “tens of thousands of dollars of technology to [Orlando] at no cost,” and shielded the city with a “mutual nondisclosure agreement that kept details out of the public eye.”

Buzzfeed also learned that Amazon provided no hands-on training to the officers. Amazon declined to answer on-record if the system learns from the videos it takes in, if they provided hands-on training to officers, or how the system disregards faces that are not “persons of interest.”

Washington County, which has used Rekognition for about a year and a half, claims the technology is helpful in finding “persons of interest” through existing mugshots, and helping investigate Amber alerts. According to the sheriff’s office, state law doesn’t permit the use of technology for mass or real-time surveillance.

However, the term “persons of interest,” used by both departments, is conveniently vague and nebulous enough that it may apply to just about anyone – even those without a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The stakes are incredibly high when officers entrust a nascent piece of technology to inform them to make instant, life-or-death decisions.

Additionally, Amazon is pitching its Rekognition software to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Although it seems this could streamline the government’s maintenance of records, there is also potential for significant errors and discrimination.

ICE already uses biometrics (fingerprints) in its documentation and cataloguing of undocumented immigrants. But the use of fingerprints has come under intense scrutiny for targeting undocumented immigrants for deportation. The misuse and lack of oversight has motivated a group of lawyers to sue ICE and submit FOIA requests to explain its oversight procedure. Facial recognition technology will likely continue this worrisome trend.

But Rekognition may not even help the police and ICE for the simple reason that it is inconsistent and inaccurate.

The ACLU ran a test in which it built a face database and search tool using 25,000 publicly available arrest photos. Then, the organization searched that database against public photos of every current member of the House and Senate. In its test, the ACLU found that Amazon’s Rekognition software incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress with mugshots of others who have been arrested for a crime.

About 40 percent of Rekognition’s false matches in this test were people of color. Of these members, six of the incorrect matches were individuals from the Congressional Black Caucus, including civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis – a celebrity the technology arguably should recognize.

Given the Trump administration’s dismal performance – failure in enforcing border security, managing undocumented immigrants’ families, and restraining ICE’s terrorization of communities of color – paired with the software’s proven potential for racial bias, the adoption of this technology is particularly concerning and should be grounds for rejection of its use outright.

Furthermore, the government is now testing the technology for use within the FBI, which would allow federal agents to sift through videos and images more quickly than ever before. It will also allow the FBI to build a system to automate the identification and tracking of any citizen. If the FBI adopts the nebulous term “persons of interest,” as our municipal police precincts have done, the nation’s most powerful and pervasive law enforcement body would have free rein to target whomever it likes.

But Amazon’s surveillance rampage doesn’t stop there. Rekognition is coming to homes as well.

Amazon has submitted a patent to pair Rekognition and databases with a doorbell company called Ring, which, incidentally, Amazon bought earlier in 2018. With Ring and Rekognition combined, police can match the faces of people walking by the camera with a photo database of people that they deem “suspicious.” Homeowners can add photos of “suspicious” people and if a match occurs, the person’s face can be sent automatically to law enforcement.

Again, without legislative or judicial oversight, and without precedent, terms “suspicious” and “persons of interest” can quickly swell to include a large number of people who are not criminals.

The fact that Amazon is providing the surveillance software to catalog, document and match personal information, along with the cloud storage to store it all, is emblematic of an unsettling initiative where big business and big government work together to enact a pervasive surveillance state.

At the very least, Amazon’s spokespeople, federal government officials and local municipalities must be held accountable to provide fixed and honest answers about the real intentions of these devices. More importantly, they need to tell us how the government would specifically utilize these tools.

At the same time, citizens must ask how tools like Rekognition will benefit them – and demand assurances that they aren’t simply being used to consolidate government and corporate power over our lives. Given the current political climate, and in respect of the Fourth Amendment, this technology shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near our federal government in the first place.

Regime Change in Venezuela, but Human Suffering Continues 2/15/2019

Regime Change in Venezuela, But Human Suffering Continues

The situation is indeed bleak in Venezuela. The crisis has been particularly harmful to Venezuelan citizens who face chronic food shortages, lack of access to medicine, crumbling and unstable transportation systems, hyperinflation, political unrest, violence and inadequate health care. A massive number of citizens have fled the country in order to escape the instability. But something must be done to rectify the suffering of the Venezuelan people.


Fortunately, the United States government is on the case. It has a tried-and-true approach to handling these messy matters and it has a proven track record to boot. The general tactic is simple:

• Fund opposition groups and covertly send them armaments.

• Politically denounce the regime in power or opposition group (whichever is in contrast to United States interests).

• Diplomatically isolate the regime.

• Ideologically condemn the country (typically left-wing governments).

• Economically ravage the country and its citizens with sanctions and blockades.

• “Stabilize” the country by installing a leader (typically a right-wing dictator) that will acquiesce to United States interests.
Time and again our government has followed this approach in Central and South America, and the results speak for themselves. Here are a few brief examples:


President Ronald Reagan signed legislation to covertly support Contra forces against the reigning Sandinistas. He also supported the production and shipment of arms to the area. Around 10,000 to 43,000 people were killed in that war.


The Reagan and Carter administrations provided military aid to the government. The United States sent military advisers to help the right-wing government combat left-wing guerrillas. Around 75,000 civilians lost their lives in that war.


President Eisenhower, under pressure from the United Fruit Company, authorized the CIA (operation PBSUCCESS) to aid in the overthrow of the democratically elected left-wing Jacobo Arbenz. They succeeded and installed a right-wing dictator, Carlos Castillo Armas. Many social reforms were reversed and decades of civil war ensued. About 200,000 civilians died in this civil war, including the genocide of the Maya population.


The CIA covertly spent approximately $3 million to oppose the democratically-elected President Salvador Allende. After providing military aid to the Chilean armed forces in order to overthrow him, the U.S. installed a right-wing dictator, Augusto Pinochet, and supported him throughout his tenure. Tens of thousands of Chileans were disappeared, tortured, jailed or executed.

Similar tactics were employed in other countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Cuba and many others. The fact is, the United States has routinely taken covert, drastic action to alter the political course of events in countries around the world – but it put emphasis on those that were in its “backyard,” Latin America. It has made these decisions without regard to their practicality, the financial resources required, the will of the local population, the potential death toll, and most importantly, the human suffering these actions would ultimately cause and continue causing long after the fact.

The U.S. government won’t ask for our – the public’s – opinion because it doesn’t want to hear it. It never did. Washington is going to do what it wants regardless. The case of Venezuela today appears no different.


President Trump and his top aides have repeatedly noted that “all options are on the table” regarding Venezuela. Bear in mind that “all options are on the table” is a platitude long used by presidents and national security advisors to indicate that military action is imminent or perhaps already in motion. Here’s what our government has already done to destabilize the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro:

• Given opposition leader Juan Guaido some control over Venezuelan assets.

• Sent humanitarian aid via trucks.

• Officially recognized the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaido, as Interim President.

• Imposed sanctions on the Venezuelan state-owned oil firm PDVSA.

The U.S. government, in short, is employing its tried-and-true approach in lock step. But this time, Washington’s world planners didn’t even offer us the traditional courtesy of spinning a nice story soaked in military and geopolitical jargon. Instead, it has become increasingly steadfast and grotesquely candid in its pursuit to acquire Venezuela’s oil reserves.

National Security Adviser John Bolton recently stated, “Venezuela is one of the three countries I call the troika of tyranny. It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela. It’d be good for the people of Venezuela. It’d be good for the people of the United States.”


Democrats who now control the House could ultimately step up to try and stop Team Trump’s crazy antics. During Trump’s recent State of the Union address, they stayed seated, unified and many of them clad in white, when Trump reiterated his plans to build the wall. They stayed seated as well when he mentioned introducing legislation to prohibit late-term abortion.

But as soon as Trump barked out his support for an alternative government in Venezuela, they rose in near unison with Republicans, clapping like seals in support. Our country is so divided, on so many issues, yet intervening in foreign countries is a united addiction we just can’t tear ourselves away from.

Granted, there has been some congressional resistance to the use of military force in Venezuela. But the resistance is not sufficient to stop our government on its current war path.


All of which begs the question: How does our government decide when to get involved and when not to? For example, why didn’t Washington intervene militarily in Brazil? Brazil has been rife with political turmoil, upheaval and unrest over the past decade. President Dilma Rousseff was the target of a highly controversial and politically driven impeachment trial, and the populist Lula de Silva was the victim of an even more controversial arrest and incarceration. The country’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro – a polemic character who has come under scrutiny for his intense far-right stances, comments and policies – was narrowly elected after winning a runoff vote.

Why hasn’t our government stepped in to help the poor people of Brazil? It’s simple: Brazil doesn’t have the easily marketable resources – ie. oil – that Venezuela has and therefore isn’t crucial to U.S. economic interests. Our government only intervenes if there is a strategic economic or military advantage for doing so.


No matter your stance on the current sociopolitical and economic crisis in Venezuela, the American public should be duly informed and have a say in the actions of its government. And as United Nations members politely tap their gavels in air conditioned and elaborately decorated rooms; as national advisers sit in their office buildings conveniently shielded from the horrors of everyday strife; as presidents callously issue orders behind bulletproof glass; and as state department memos are meticulously drafted in basements monitored by security officers, human suffering continues. The governments of the world are out of touch with the consequences of their actions.

The needs of a country’s citizenry are never considered when governments and important advisers posture for power and position. Far worse, the victims of their terrible decisions are never asked their opinion, and never will be asked. The everyday person will continue to be used as a pawn in global leaders’ endless chess game: dispensable, replaceable, negligible.

Only when we return the focus to exposing and rectifying the human suffering as a result of our government’s policies will we begin to heal and carry out effective solutions to these dynamic issues.