‘Don’t Break my Prime?’ Actually, it’s time to move fast and break….Big Tech

This, from the industry that loves to move fast and break things.

“Amazon Prime is *incredibly* popular with Americans. How popular? There are more than 150 million members in the U.S, with many (most?) there to enjoy “free”* two-day shipping. That’s roughly equal to the number of Americans who VOTED in 2020. And Amazon is betting all 150 million will do almost anything to keep that “free” shipping — including abandoning any pretense that they prefer to live in a free country that supports capitalism and free-market principles.

“Don’t Break Our Prime” is a deeply cynical ad campaign that’s being thrust onto your TVs and Internet space as pro-competition legislation makes its way through Congress. Amazon’s monopoly power has deeply hurt American small businesses for years — and made Jeff Bezos so much money that his hobby is going to space —  but lately, the tech giant’s tactics at crushing competitors have kicked up a notch.

Amazon’s customer base is so large that many small companies *have* to sell products on their platform. That’s weird, because it makes Amazon both a fulfillment service *and* a retailer.  There have long been accusations that Amazon’s data nerds study all these competitors on their platform, rip off their products, and then advantage Amazon brands when consumers search for items. More than accusations, actually. Congress recently made a criminal referral about this practice to the Department of Justice.

The kind, gentle term for this — minus the sneaky data harvesting — is “self-preferencing.” And yes, some supermarkets put their own brand of toilet paper on the best shelf, right there next to the Charmin.  If there were a few dozen Amazon-like services out there, self-preferencing there wouldn’t be so bad. But since Amazon has 150 MILLION U.S. MEMBERS on Prime, it’s deeply anti-competitive. Kind of like owning most of the gas refineries, and most of the gas trucks, and most of the gas stations….

So the U.S. Senate is considering legislation that would ban this practice of advantaging its own products over competitors.  Both Democrats and Republicans support the idea.

Amazon has now come out swinging.  As is tradition with such campaigns, it is not attacking the premise of the bill. It’s hitting consumers in an emotional spot, with the message that — given all these concerns about inflation, and supply chains, and the pandemic — now would be a terrible time to lose Amazon Prime’s free shipping! Don’t Break Our Prime!

What are the particulars of this argument? Please read up on it. Here’s a position piece from Project Disco (?) which attempts to explain why Amazon NEEDS its anti-competitive behavior in order to provide two-day shipping.  And here’s a Wired piece that does a good job of debunking that press release. 

It should be clear that this isn’t about two-day shipping.  Rather, Amazon is hoping the popularity of Prime gives it enough clout to beat back, or at least delay, reasonable efforts at reform.

This is just the tip of the spear, however.  Tech industry lobbyists are using this “Don’t Break Our Tech” model to defend the status quo in the face of various reform efforts. Google serves up the most self-serving links, rather than the best links, it has engaged in ad bid-rigging, its business has been called the biggest data breach of all time, but if Congress messes with that, maps won’t work!  Your privacy will be violated. Also, China will become more powerful!

These are emotionally compelling arguments; they just might work.  But as you begin to see all these “Don’t Break Our …” messages, please keep something in mind.  Silicon Valley invented the phrase “move fast and break things.” So it’s deeply ironic that Big Tech firms are suddenly afraid of trying new things that might break something.

The techlash is real.  Human beings are realizing that for all the great gifts tech has given us, there are serious costs. The pendulum has swung too far. Big Tech companies aren’t the only source of trouble, but they are a good place to start. Tech companies are so large they don’t really have to answer to anyone right now.  Facebook paid a $5 billion fine for ignoring a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission and…didn’t really change anything. It’s time to draw some boundaries around the monoliths.  As Harvard’s Francella Ochillo said to me in my recent docu-podcast, Defending Democracy from Big Tech, while we keep arguing about the details, these firms are making billions of dollars.  We want techland to be free for competition. To do that, we’re going to have to break (up) a few things.  So what? We’re on iPhone 13. The beta version of tech reform might not be perfect. That’s shouldn’t stop us. The cost of inaction is far too high. I’m here for v2.0, and 3.0 and … 13 pro! You should be, too.

*Free shipping isn’t free, of course.  Prime costs money!  The cost is built into the products you buy.  As with Uber, the price is being (temporarily) subsidized by investment money, which is another way of saying it’s a Ponzi scheme. Also, Amazon drivers live awful lives because of Prime.  There’s all that cardboard. “Free” is never free. 

 

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About Bob Sullivan 1605 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

20 Comments

  1. Fuck you
    Leave Amazon prime alone.I save money by using prime instead of the only one store in my town that charges 4.00 dollars for a dozen eggs. It costs a lot less to order
    Instead of shopping local
    All I care about is my money
    Instead of going after Amazon why not do your fucking jobs and tackle inflation you government pricks

    • Shut up, dope. You’re part of the problem. “All I care about is my money”. Yep, there it is. You refuse to acknowledge anything else might contribute to your shitty life. All the Republican tools you vote for have policies that have led to wage stagnation for decades. That’s why every last cent you make matters. You can save, you can’t get ahead by design. But you won’t look at that– it’s unga bunga gas prices unga bunga eggs.. Biden wave magic wand now!!

      • You are such an idiot democrat. Gas prices thru the roof food shortages get a clue. I work for a living unlike you democrats that life off the government. Get a life buddy

  2. This piece reads more like an opinion piece than actual journalism. Apparently he feels it’s more important to promote his agenda and legacy than do a deep dive into the topic. I’m curious about depth of the research by the author. Did he read the whole bill? Doubtful. It’s riddled with flawed language. It should not advance as written. There will be many unintended consequences. See: (Bob here: I deleted this link but Google Lawrence Spiwak and Amazon Prime if you want to read it)

    • If only I had a ‘legacy’ to promote. And if only you had actual arguments to share, rather than some ad hominem and a link which I’m guessing is mainly for the SEO Lulz. Reply with an actual discussion and I’ll leave it up but otherwise I’m going to disable it.

      • So Bob Sullivan did not like my comment. I tried to further the discussion and broaden the topic. I thought he may be a writer I would follow for a while and see where it leads. That apparently is not going to happen. Guess Bob doesn’t want discussion except on a primal/reactionary level. He is going to take down my comment. But a crazy foul-mouth rant by another reader remains up. Bob could have addressed my one question: Did he read the actual bill he wrote about? But that is too much to ask of someone who claims to be a journalist. His writing on this topic was poorly researched. And I had the audacity to ask about that. He is more interested in clicks and sensationalism. Delete my post. Delete my link to an intelligent review of the bill. Bob probably didn’t read that either. I’m sure his upcoming reviews and comments about the food court and pie-eating contests at the county fairs this summer will be riveting. Good luck on your future endeavors.

        • Oh no, I would never delete your comment. But I will remove that link because you haven’t convinced me it’s anything more than an SEO play by you. Nor have you engaged in a discussion of issues. I’m as uncomfortable as anyone when Congress writes a bill with such prescriptive instructions about a business practice, but that’s necessary with actors that consistently undermine the rule of law and market economics. I can’t understand why anyone who claims interest in a free market would defend such clearly anticompetitive practices. I do believe someone could in good argue there will unintended consequences…things will break, as I wrote…there are always unintended consequences. But anyone who writes something like “Why does Congress want to break Prime” isn’t being sincere. Just pandering, hoping people aren’t following along.

          • Jeff, I think Bob is on to something that the rest of us dont pay much attention to because it does not provide instant gratification to us personally. Bob, I have been seeing these adds and happy that someone is seeing what I see. Whenever I see the adds I try to find who is funding them and what is their “real” interest. It usually ends up being funded buy some big monopoly playing on their customer base heart strings about keeping America competitive. If Jeff has more skin in the game as a small business that gets pushed around by monopolies that they are forced to compete with he may feel differently and see the bigger picture besides his gas and eggs. Which by the way gas is controlled by the American Patroleum Institute, Not Joe Biden. The same API that hires lobbying firms to make Ads asking you to tell congress stop messing with American Competition. Jeff there is a reason you have a choice in google chrome, Edge and firefox. Because Congress apparently broke Microsoft via anti-monopoly legislation. There is a reason you have mobile phone choices instead of just one brand and service provider.

  3. This article is much like his others. Opinion and frankly in hindsight generally incorrect, wrong, misleasing and frankly uneducated. I don’t want congress messing with my prime. I get my copier paper next day for less then Walmart or office depot, hot tub chemicals next day for half the price of anyone else. This bill is yet another liberal attempt to kill the free market. His articles show a history of liberal bias. He should not pretend to be a journalist but rather join the view. Pathetic excuse for journalism

    • Don’t mess with my Prime! I gotta get my cheap Chinese crap and copy paper like yesterday! I neeeeed my mass consumerist pig supply TODAY! Oink oink oink!! Stuff! More stuff! Don’t mess with my Prime!
      Fuck you, imbecile.

  4. If you’ve landed here and are a sincerely curious person, I recommend you do some reading on the “consumer welfare standard” and how — like many DC turns of phrase –is Orwellian in the real world, as it has actually enabled giant corporations to amass more and more power. Here’s the conservative Washington Examiner examining the issue. In short, when someone throws up “consumer welfare” in an antitrust debate, it’s a big tell you should learn to see through. https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/policy/consumer-welfare-standard-under-siege-after-40-year-dominance-of-antitrust

  5. And if we loose our Prime it wont be because Jeff Bezos is now too in the red because of anti trust legislation. It would be Amazon’s choice to change it and it would be intentional just to further pull on customers heart strings with hopes that they will turn against the congressmen who pushed for the legislation. Microsoft fought the same argument when congress stepped in to stop them from crushing its competitors. In spite of some regulation I think Microsoft survived and so did we. When some corporate giant that has a monopoly is fighting regulation it usually is not doing for the customer benefit. Its usually to maintain the monopoly and the additional profit that comes with that status. The API would make billions each quarter even if they priced gas at 2 bucks a gallon. Yet we are paying 5 bucks a gallon because they say the price of a barrel of oil purchased today is actually affecting refined old purchased at a lower price by API members 2 years ago. And they spend millions fighting any government attempts to force any type of effort to lower prices. So please stop blaming any US president for gas prices. Amazon, API etc are corporate capitalist and they dont care about you and I the working class guy like their ads try to portray.

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