This Week: 1. Amazon Strong-arming; 2. Funding Misinformation; 3. Xinjiang Lobbying; 4. Gray Goo
What you should know from the week of 12/04/21:
- Amazon Strong-arming: Amazon leverages its tremendous market power to ban Visa payments in the U.K.—while coincidentally running a cobranded Mastercard Amazon credit card;
- Xinjiang Lobbying: Nike, Coca-Cola, and Apple lobby against U.S. laws targeting forced labor in Xinjiang;
- Funding Misinformation: Google and Facebook are known conduits for misinformation, but they also actively fund misinformation;
- Gray Goo: Researchers create living 'robots' that self-replicate through a new form of reproduction.
Amazon will no longer accept Visa credit cards starting in January of 2022. Allegedly Amazon is doing this because Visa raised their fees in the UK after Brexit. But as James Vincent from The Verge notes:
However, Visa isn’t the only company to make such a change [to its fees]. MasterCard made an identical increase to its interchange fees before Visa, but it hasn’t been blocked by Amazon. It’s not entirely clear why Visa has been singled out.
Of course, Amazon is a brutally efficient company, and its single-minded focus on increasing profit always provides the key to understanding its motivations:
While in the US Amazon's cobranded credit card is a Visa card, in the UK Amazon's cobranded credit card is a Mastercard. While Amazon customers in the UK will still be able to use Visa debit cards to make purchases, if they want to use a credit card they will need to switch to a different provider, like Mastercard.
According to Yahoo! Finance, Amazon denies there is a linkage between their ban on Visa and Amazon's Mastercard offerings:
A spokesperson for Amazon said they do not have any comment on the GlobalData report but wanted to emphasise that Visa is a service provider to Amazon, not a competitor, and that its action to ban Visa credit cards is entirely unrelated to its own payment offerings.
Yahoo! also notes elsewhere in their article:
Amazon currently also has Visa co-branded credit cards, but media reports indicate Amazon is considering dropping Visa as partner.
While Amazon is currently only doing this in the UK, it may pursue the same tactic in the US later.
Nike, Coca-Cola, and Apple have been lobbying Congress on the "Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act."
Congress is considering this act—the full language of which can be read here—essentially the Act would consider products produced in Xinjiang or made by persecuted minorities to be products of forced labor:
(a) In General.—Except as provided in subsection (b), all goods, wares, articles, and merchandise mined, produced, or manufactured wholly or in part in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, or by persons working with the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region government for purposes of the “poverty alleviation” program or the “pairing-assistance” program which subsidizes the establishment of manufacturing facilities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, shall be deemed to be goods, wares, articles, and merchandise described in section 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930 (19 U.S.C. 1307) and shall not be entitled to entry at any of the ports of the United States.
Although it does not appear that this would directly impact these companies, Nike, Coca-Cola, and Apple have sent their lobbyists to the Hill on this topic. As Ana Swanson in the New York Times reports this week:
Lobbying disclosures show that companies have spent heavily to sway Congress on Xinjiang-related legislation, though they reveal nothing about their specific requests.
Reporting online has tended to be a bit breathless on this, reporting that these companies have been lobbying against this legislation. Unfortunately there is no smoking gun to show that, we only know they have been lobbying on the legislation.
However, their spokespeople responded to the NYT's request for comments with vague and defensive fluff about their strong ethical standards in their supply chains.
The two likelihoods are either: that these companies are lobbying to soften the bill in order to juice their relations with Beijing, or ;that these companies prefer to avoid responsibility for trafficking-free supply chains.
- Beijing has proven more effective at incentivizing companies to support Party values than Washington has proven at incentivizing companies to support Democratic values, and companies.
- Subsection (b) of the bill allows for goods from Xinjiang to be exempt from the provisions of the act if those goods can be proven to be produced free of forced labor, so these companies need not fear these bills if their supply chains are as clean as they declare them to be.
Unsurprising but well-documented reporting from Karen Hao in the MIT Technology Review covering how Facebook and Google's policies—despite their claims of ethical high standing—performed feebly as they were trivially subverted. Most particularly in Myanmar where:
In 2018, a United Nations investigation determined that the violence against the Rohingya constituted a genocide and that Facebook had played a “determining role” in the atrocities.
Hao walks through how Facebook and Google funded groups that created and pushed misinformation. Even though this went against those companies' policies.
In response to this story, Facebook/Meta trotted out their classic line of "we've worked hard on this problem and will keep doing so:"
In response to the detailed evidence we provided to each company of this behavior, Meta spokesperson Joe Osborne disputed our core findings, saying we’d misunderstood the issue. “Regardless, we’ve invested in building new expert-driven and scalable solutions to these complex issues for many years, and will continue doing so,” he said.
Of course, for a trillion dollar company, "we've tried but it's hard, cut us some slack" wears thin pretty quickly.
Researchers at the University of Vermont, Tufts, and Harvard's Wyss Institute have created Xenobots (a "living, programmable organism" that is considered to be neither a robot nor a true living organism) that—in the right environment—self-replicate.
Programmable self-replicating 'bots are a common trope in Sci-Fi, whether it is "Gray Goo" or the Replicators in Stargate.
Currently these Xenobots have limited capabilities (Ars Technica does a great job detailing how the research is over-promised at the moment), but they do represent a significant technological advance. Technology is not bad, but it is a tool that can be used for good or bad purposes.
Using tools for good requires knowledge and ability. And it requires practice. This technology involves AI, design and creation of new kinds of organisms, discovery of new kinds of reproduction, and healthcare applications. None of these new areas have well-defined or socially-accepted ethical standards. "Disruption" and "move fast and break things" are not the right ethos for these areas of research.
Interest piqued? Disagree? Reach out to me at TwelveTablesBlog [at] protonmail.com or @12tablesblog with your thoughts.
Photo by Tamara Gak on Unsplash