Opinion

Congress must turn the corner on big tech this year

Lawmakers should start by taking a close look at Amazon

A spray-painted protest message directed at Amazon is seen Jan. 9 on a wall near a construction site in Long Island City, Queens, one of two locations that will house the tech giant’s second headquarters. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

OPINION — The ongoing government shutdown is a clear sign to anybody who still needed one that the next two years will be rife with partisan wrangling.

But on the heels of last year’s sweeping tech backlash, there is at least one issue lawmakers agree on: Something must finally be done to protect Americans from the many ills of Big Tech. Congress should start by taking a close look at Amazon.

Amazon’s harmful business practices — little-known to the average consumer, by design — are weakening competition, limiting consumer choice, putting consumer data at risk and subjecting hundreds of thousands of Americans to grueling work conditions. With ambitions to expand its already-massive shipping and distribution network and plans to build new taxpayer-subsidized headquarter campuses in two U.S. cities, Amazon poses a profound and unique challenge that lawmakers have a responsibility to understand and contain before it’s too late.

Congress should heed the warnings of business owners, consumers and Amazon’s own workers, all of whom have been sounding the alarm across a wide range of issues. Independent retailers in just about every industry are deeply worried about Amazon’s unchecked growth, with 90 percent saying that company is having a negative impact on their revenue.

Regarding data privacy, 83 percent of Americans say there needs to be tougher regulations and penalties for technology companies (not just social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter) to prevent data breaches. And Amazon’s own employees are speaking out in record numbers about inhumane working conditions in its warehouses.

Fortunately, change is within reach. Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have awoken to the dangers of Big Tech going unchecked and agree that comprehensive action is urgently needed. Last year brought small steps in the right direction, including a data privacy hearing before the Senate that Amazon showed up to.

This year, lawmakers must finally come together on a critical bipartisan issue and address Amazon’s anti-competitive practices. Congress should strongly consider reforming antitrust policy to stop Amazon from entering industry after industry and weakening competition.

After all, as Amazon has increased its market capitalization and concentration of power, new business growth has been slashed nearly in half. Lawmakers should focus on preserving competition for government contracts as well, given the troubling reports about the JEDI bidding process being improperly influenced in Amazon’s favor — this is exactly the kind of crony capitalism that Republicans have rightfully railed against.

Lawmakers should enact strong, comprehensive data privacy rules that safeguard consumers’ personal information. Too often, Amazon is left out of the data privacy conversation — which has focused almost exclusively on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter — even amid reports of consumer data leaks and expert concerns about platform vulnerability.

Congress should investigate the claims made by Amazon warehouse workers. The working conditions inside Amazon warehouses and for delivery drivers have been well-documented, with more and more employees speaking out. Their stories range from grueling management demands and urinating in bottles to injuries and even death. In fact, Amazon landed on the National Council for Occupational Health and Safety’s 2018 “dirty dozen” list. House Democrats who have promised to put labor and employment issues front and center should champion change for Amazon’s workers.

Another issue that should have Democrats and Republicans in Congress working together is Amazon’s extremely problematic HQ2 process. The dirty truth is that Amazon obtained massive amounts of insider information — on everything from economic development plans to energy costs — from the 238 locations that submitted bids. This database gives Amazon a leg up over local businesses, and without action, that advantage will endure for decades. The House Energy and Commerce panel’s Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection should call on Amazon to testify and provide answers on what they are doing with that information.

Simply put, this must be the year when Congress brings rules and regulations regarding companies like Amazon into the 21st century. It must be a top priority of the 116th Congress to restore fairness and competition in the marketplace and ensure that increasingly powerful technology companies like Amazon are held to the same high standards of conduct that every other American company is held to.

Robert B. Engel is the chief spokesperson for the Free & Fair Markets Initiative, a nonprofit coalition that supports a fair marketplace for small businesses and local communities. He also serves as CEO & managing director of BLT Advisory Services, LLC and the director of Alaska Power & Telephone and Citywide Banks. He also sits on the advisory board for Calamar.

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