Programming note: The Interface will be off Monday for Labor Day.
When a tech platform grows beyond a certain size, a now-familiar phenomenon begins to unfold. The creators no longer have a view of — or control over — all the day-to-day activity on the platform, allowing bad actors to manipulate it to their own ends.
On Twitter, this led to unchecked harassment and abuse, much of it focused on women and minorities. On Facebook, it led to Cambridge Analytica and Russian interference in the 2016 election. On YouTube, it led to a surge in extremist content, boosted by algorithmic recommendations.
Last week, thanks to a terrific investigation in the Wall Street Journal
, we saw how size has blinded Amazon to a host of dangerous products that third-party sellers have made available. Alexandra Berzon, Shane Shifflett and Justin Scheck found 4,152 items for sale on Amazon that have been declared unsafe or banned by federal regulators, or have deceptive labels. This included items that Amazon has said it bans — and dozens of them were labeled “Amazon’s Choice,” which is based on an item’s ratings, pricing, and shipping time, but likely strikes many Amazon customers as a seal of approval.
The report’s findings include:
• 116 products were falsely listed as “FDA-approved” including four toys—the agency doesn’t approve toys—and 98 eyelash-growth serums that never undertook the drug-approval process to be marketed as approved. […]
• 80 listings matched the description of infant sleeping wedges the FDA has warned can cause suffocation and Amazon has said it banned.
• 52 listings were marketed as supplements with brand names the FDA and Justice Department have identified as containing illegally imported prescription drugs. […]
• The Journal analyzed 3,644 toy listings for federally required choking-hazard warnings. Regulators don’t provide databases of toys requiring the warning, so the Journal compared the Amazon listings with the same toys on Target.com and found that 2,324, or 64%, of the Amazon listings lacked the warnings found on the Target
Why are so many bad products on the platform? According to a former employee interviewed by the Journal, Amazon’s desire to sell as many products as possible has historically been prioritized over safety. In perhaps the most striking anecdote in the report, a former employee says the company actively avoided testing some products for lead content:
At one point in 2013, some Amazon employees began scanning randomly selected third-party products in Amazon warehouses for lead content, say people familiar with the tests. Around 10% of the products tested failed, one says. The failed products were purged, but higher-level employees decided not to expand the testing, fearing it would be unmanageable if applied to the entire marketplace, the people familiar with the tests say. Amazon declined to comment on the episode.
“Amazon will always default to allowing more stuff to be available to the customer,” says Ms. Greer.
In their letter
, the senators said: “Unquestionably, Amazon is falling short of its commitment to keeping safe those consumers who use its massive platform…We believe it is essential for consumers to fully understand the safety of products they bring into their homes.”
Amazon’s marketplace is so chaotic that not even Amazon itself is safe from getting hijacked. In addition to being a retail platform, Amazon sells its own house-brand goods under names like AmazonBasics, Rivet furniture, Happy Belly food, and hundreds of other labels. Sellers often complain that these brands represent unfair competition, and regulators
in Europe and the United States have taken an interest in the matter. But other sellers appear to have found a way to use Amazon’s brands for their own ends. Amazon promotes them
heavily, racking up thousands of reviews on listings that the company then abandons when it stops production or comes out with a new version. Enterprising sellers then hijack these pages to hawk their own wares.
Take this listing
, formerly for an AmazonBasics HDMI cable
. Amazon removed it and other listings after being contacted by The Verge
, but before it was taken down, it was being used to sell two completely different alarm clocks: a “Warmhoming 2019 Updated Wooden Digital Alarm Clock with 7 Levels Adjustable Brightness, Display Time Date Week Temperature for Bedroom Office Home,” and a white wake-up light clock, which was out of stock. Strangely, that clock was listed as a second variety, color “Blackadaafgew,” yet the listing’s copy referred to binoculars that “can help you see a clear face from more than 650 feet away.” Many of the Amazon listings appear to undergo multiple hijackings.
The takeaway here is that some reviews on Amazon branded products don’t even refer to the actual product being sold. It’s an effect of the company allowing sellers to edit listings — a move intended to improve their accuracy, but one that in practice can result in deception.
To date, there has been little fallout from Amazon’s lapses in platform integrity. The Journal recounts some serious issues — including a man who died after purchasing a faulty helmet — but so far we haven’t seen the kind of large-scale abuse that could trigger outrage on the scale of Cambridge Analytica or YouTube radicalization.
Still, I’m struck by other ways in which Amazon’s experience mirrors Facebook’s. In both cases, the top priority was growth, and lax security proved to be a powerful accelerant to that growth. Two, the initial response to journalist reports was to dismiss them. Three, those reports piqued the attention of lawmakers, raising the prospect of more serious intervention.
Amazon’s institutional tone-deafness
makes me wonder whether if the company is ready for what’s next. I suspect reporters will be paying more attention to Amazon’s platform problems over the next year, rather than less — and at this point it’s not at all clear that the company could guess what they might find.