Recently, some courts have challenged Amazon’s claim that it is not a seller. In 2020, an appeals court in San Diego found that Amazon was liable for a laptop battery that exploded and gave a woman severe burns. In 2021, another California court determined 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 force the recall of hazardous products being sold by third parties on its site. The ones they found included 24,000 faulty carbon monoxide detectors, 400,000 hair dryers that lacked immersion protection devices to prevent shock and electrocution, and “numerous” children’s pajamas that did not meet flammable fabric safety standards. Amazon moved to dismiss the case, claiming it served only as a “third-party logistics provider” — like a shopping mall — but in January, an administrative law judge ruled that it was a “distributor,” like a store, under the Consumer Product Safety Act. (An Amazon representative told The Times, “While we continue to disagree with the notion that we are a distributor, we share CPSC’s commitment to customer and product safety and will continue working toward that goal.”)
Outside the courts, federal agencies have called for online retailers — including Amazon — to police their marketplaces for fraud, particularly counterfeit and defective goods. And since 2020, legislators from both parties have introduced bills that would compel e-commerce platforms to do more to verify the identities of sellers. Versions of one such bill, the INFORM Consumers Act, have been introduced in 18 state legislatures, with support from lobbyists that represent Walmart and other major retail chains. So far, only Arkansas, Walmart’s home state, has passed one. But this year, a version of the act was included as a section of another bill that passed both houses of Congress and is 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 avoid imposing inconsistent obligations on sellers.”
Even if Walmart has self-interested reasons for backing the INFORM Consumers Act, it seems difficult to argue with the claim that e-commerce platforms should vet businesses that sell large volumes of products through them or be liable for accidents, just as brick-and-mortar stores typically are. One important element is missing from the act, though: In addition to offering more clarity to customers, Amazon should become more accountable to the sellers who are its customers, too, by offering them clearer ways to dispute automated decisions and fairer terms for arbitration.
The automated processes that Amazon uses to govern its Marketplace at scale will make mistakes; all algorithms do. They will also be gameable; all algorithms are. To small business owners who depend on Amazon for their livelihood and take on debt to scale, mistaken punishment and unfair gaming can be devastating. If new rules are put in place without clear avenues for appeal, they will motivate sellers to seek workarounds that undermine the marketplace integrity that the bill strives to create.
Amazon does not want to hurt customers. On the contrary, almost everything about Amazon is optimized to please its customers. Like some other retailers, the company often does not even require refunded merchandise to be returned. Amazon did not invent outsourcing, or single-handedly create the inequalities that it profits from, any more than Facebook and YouTube invented lying or Uber created the precarities that motivate many of its drivers to sign up. But as Amazon makes aspects of global exploitation more efficient, its growing monopolistic power means that more and more of commerce operates on its terms. As the broad public has come to recognize of social media, those terms include a great deal of opacity and impunity for platforms themselves.
Narratives of injury engross us because they point to tangible harms — blindings and burns and broken bones. They play to concrete fears and offer individual resolutions. Amazon has every interest in presenting problems in its marketplace as the fault of a few bad actors. So do politicians. It is hard to get constituents excited about cracking down on a company that most of them like and use regularly. It is easier to blame the failures of that company on distant Chinese manufacturers — to point to racialized others who are already objects of animus, rather than to a system that implicates most American adults. But the prospect of injury without relief — a prospect that workers in fulfillment centers face much more frequently than customers — should not make us turn to Amazon for solutions; rather, it should raise the question of whether such cheap, fast consumption is, in fact, desirable.
Bad actors exist. But they are acting within a system that is set up to create them.
Moira Weigel is an assistant professor of communication studies at Northeastern University.
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