Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is now the richest man in the world, with an empire that stretches from Hollywood to Whole Foods — and even into outer space.
The new PBS Frontline documentary, Amazon Empire: The Rise And Reign Of Jeff Bezos, investigates how Bezos transformed Amazon from an online bookseller into a trillion-dollar business that's unprecedented in its size and reach. Director James Jacoby, who worked with fellow filmmaker Anya Bourg on the project, calls the company an "inescapable part of our modern lives."
"It's not just how the majority of Americans are shopping online," he says. "It's also these devices in our homes. It's also the facial recognition software that's used by police departments. It's cloud computing for the government and national security establishment."
Jacoby notes that Amazon's ubiquity — and the fact that "so much power is pooled into the hands of one company and one man" — raises a host of issues. The company's Echo smart speaker has been known to record — and occasionally listen to — the conversations of unsuspecting homeowners. In 2019, the European Union antitrust arm announced an investigation into Amazon's use of data collected from third-party sellers.
"I think that [Atlantic writer] Franklin Foer in the film puts it best, which is like everything that's amazing or awesome about Jeff Bezos and Amazon is also something to be feared about Amazon and Jeff Bezos," Jacoby says.
On why, in part, Amazon began as a bookseller
Books are easy to ship. ... And [Bezos] also realized that in the online world, there would be an advantage that no single bookstore could hold all of the books in print. ... He also, I think, saw an opportunity to learn about customers through what they read. He recognized very early on the power of data to predict what people would want. So in many ways, you are what you read and you could glean a lot about a customer from what he or she reads.
On working conditions in Amazon warehouses
We spoke to dozens of current and former employees in the reporting process. The nature of the work has changed a bit over the years. When Bezos was first building out these fulfillment centers all over the country in order to deliver on the promise of delivering packages quickly, it was almost ad hoc. They were growing so quickly. And there were a lot of complaints at the time about things like heat stress. There wouldn't be the proper air conditioning in these warehouses, and people would be working like crazy to try to meet these quotas to get the packages out. People would be fainting in these warehouses. There'd be injuries.
Over time, the warehouses have become much more systematized, in part because of the automation of the warehouses and buying a robot company that helped to automate things. But one thing that hasn't changed in talking to workers — both current and former — is the pace of work is incredibly grueling. You have to make rates. ... The rate essentially measures how quickly you pick and pack items. ... Every single worker we spoke to [talked about how] the rates were really high. They have a way of setting the rates for the whole warehouse — that if you don't make that rate, then you can get a write up. And if you get three write ups, then you can be fired. There's a lot of anxiety in these warehouses about making rates.
On a recent hack on Amazon's "Ring" cameras
Ring makes these doorbell cameras, that was their first main device. ... It's a doorbell that has a camera on it. In part, Amazon liked the idea of it, because package theft is a big deal for the company — a lot of people get packages to their door and someone's stealing that package. So now you can watch your front step. Of course, if the camera is watching the front step, it's also watching the public space on the street as well, which is somewhat problematic. So there's now this whole suite of Ring devices and Ring cameras, not just to monitor the outside of your home but also the inside of your home.
There was a recent hack of indoor Ring cameras, which was rather frightful. ... There's a little girl in her room and her parents had installed a Ring camera in that room and all of a sudden there's a voice coming from the camera that's basically terrorizing her as she's alone in her room.
On how facial recognition software and data collection is in Amazon's hands, and is vulnerable to hacks and bad agents
All of this data, all of these networks — it's all up to Amazon to manage this well. And they say that that's the thing that holds them accountable, keeps them responsible on a daily basis, is that they can't breach customer trust. For a company that's built its brand on building customer trust on delivering for customers, on not breaching their trust, these sorts of hacks, these sorts of problems, are devastating to their image, because it gets customers and citizens concerned about whether we should entrust a company like Amazon with all of this. And, of course, there are safeguards in place.
But I think some of the larger questions about Amazon are whether there are really any auditing systems, public auditing systems for cases of abuse. ... We're reliant on a private company to police abuse, and there's no way to publicly audit whether they're doing a good job of that. And that's something that we asked Amazon executives about — not just about Ring cameras and Echo devices — but certainly facial recognition software, which is a very powerful tool that they have really encouraged police departments around the country to experiment with.
On Sen. Elizabeth Warren's idea of breaking up big tech companies
Essentially, what "break them up" really means is to try to limit the lines of business that Amazon can engage in. So, for instance, Amazon is this platform for online commerce that they themselves are competing on as a store against other stores and retailers. So she has this idea of maybe they shouldn't be competing on a platform that they own, maybe they shouldn't be allowed to be doing that, because they have an unfair advantage. That's in part what break them up means. And so I think it's certainly something that Congress is going to be considering. And I think some of the other candidates have been supportive of that idea of breaking them up.
On Bezos' space exploration company Blue Origin
When it comes to Jeff Bezos, he's got two CEOs that are running Amazon and he has stepped away a bit from the company. I mean, he's helping to expand it into India and other places. But as we understand it, his primary goal is to focus on his company Blue Origin. And Blue Origin is his space exploration company. It's his rocket ship company. And essentially it's the fulfillment of something that has been his lifelong goal and plan, which is to, as he puts it, build the infrastructure to go to space and to make it cost-effective for us to figure out what to do in space. ...
[Bezos] claims — and I think he's genuine in believing this — that he wants to save planet Earth, and his whole idea is that he wants there to be dynamism and growth. He believes in capitalism. He believes in consumerism. He believes that ... we're going to need to look to the heavens, essentially, to figure out how we can continue to live in a world of dynamism and growth. And that, in Jeff Bezos' mind, means we may need to move heavy industry into space. We may need to mine other planets or planetary objects for their resources, or we may need to actually build space colonies. He is really serious about this.
Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Amazon started as an online bookseller, but now it not only sells nearly everything. It owns a wide range of companies, including Whole Foods. It's created streaming services, developed facial recognition and surveillance technologies and sold cloud computing services to the CIA. Bezos, the richest man in the world, owns The Washington Post and is developing technology for space travel. A new documentary titled "Amazon Empire: The Rise And Reign Of Jeff Bezos" will premiere on PBS next Tuesday as part of "Frontline," the investigative documentary series.
Our guest is the film's director and correspondent, James Jacoby, who worked with producers Anya Bourg and Megan Robertson. The documentary investigates how Amazon has disrupted and transformed nearly every aspect of our lives and has come under scrutiny for its tactics and expanding power. Terry spoke with James Jacoby yesterday, and as you'll hear, she has a cold. Here's her interview.
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: James Jacoby, welcome to FRESH AIR.
JAMES JACOBY: Thank you so much.
GROSS: So let's start with - how big is Amazon?
JACOBY: It's very big. It's a trillion-dollar company, and it's a company that really extends in a lot of different directions. And so it's not just the online e-commerce company that a lot of us interact with on a very regular basis. It's also the largest cloud computing company in the world. It has a - does about a third of the cloud computing, which means the sort of digital infrastructure of the Internet and storing and managing the data of millions of companies out there and governments and academic institutions. It's a streaming service. It's a big Hollywood producer. It owns Whole Foods. The reach of Amazon in many different directions is tremendous. And it's certainly - by, you know, the market standards, it's one of the largest companies in the world.
GROSS: So Jeff Bezos started his career at a hedge fund. Why did he look to the Web?
JACOBY: Well, he started his career at D. E. Shaw, which was a hedge fund in New York, a rather secretive hedge fund started by a computer scientist named David Shaw. And Shaw was one of the first traders on Wall Street that used data and algorithmic trading. And Jeff Bezos was recently - rather recently out of Princeton, had studied computer science and engineering. And he - Shaw had taken on a lot of people like Bezos, who were real QuantMinds, and applying that type of scientific mind to Wall Street trading.
And he had tasked Bezos at the time with looking into new major business opportunities, including - this is the mid-'90s - including looking at the World Wide Web, the Internet, which was in its nascent stages at that point, at least for commercial purposes. And Bezos recognized this startling statistic, which is - essentially, it was growing at 2,300% a year. And as he puts it in his own words, he says, you know, that things only grow at that rate in Petri dishes. It's really something you rarely see. And he saw an opportunity there that this was going to be the next big thing and that he needed to figure out a way in. And his way in was selling books online.
GROSS: Yeah, why was it books? Bezos never intended Amazon to be just a bookstore, so why did he start with books?
JACOBY: There's a number of reasons why he started with books. First of all, books are easy to ship. They don't really get hurt in shipping. And he also realized that in the online world, there would be an advantage that no single bookstore could hold all of the books in print. But if you had an online bookstore, you could basically get any book to a customer. You'd have to just source it, find it and get it to a customer. He also, I think, saw an opportunity to learn about customers through what they read. He recognized very early on the power of data kind of to predict what people would want. So in many ways, you are what you read. And you could glean a lot about a customer from what he or she reads.
GROSS: Amazon lost money for a really long time. Was it 20 years?
JACOBY: Yeah, it was about 20 years. I don't have the exact number, but it was - for roughly 20 years, Amazon was losing money. It was unprofitable. Yeah.
GROSS: But that didn't stop people from investing in it, and it didn't stop Jeff Bezos from building his empire. What was his strategy, realizing that he was going to give up making profits in order to gain market share?
JACOBY: Yeah, he had - Jeff Bezos really came at Wall Street and investors with a big idea pitch at the time. And he spelled it out, actually, in 1997 with the company's first shareholder letter, where he basically lays out a vision that he still cites to this day, which is that we're not going to really pay attention to the vicissitudes of the market. We're not going to pay attention too much to our share price or to Wall Street reactions. What - really, what we want is to play a very long game, which, as we know, is not necessarily the Wall Street game. Wall Street's interested in quarterly earnings, and Wall Street investors can be rather fickle if you have a bad quarter.
He wasn't going to play that game. He was going to say, come along with me. I have a plan to basically gain market share in this burgeoning economy online. Part of that means I'm going to have to reinvest every single dollar back into building infrastructure, digital infrastructure, keeping prices low. And that - if I stick to that strategy, the nature of this new marketplace is that I will win, and you should come along with me. And Wall Street - it wasn't always an easy ride with Wall Street. But investors really did stick with him and obviously have been very handsomely rewarded over the years.
GROSS: One of the reasons why Bezos was able to undersell his competitors was that, you know, on the Web, you didn't have to pay sales tax. So how much of an edge did that give him, and how did he use it?
JACOBY: Well, Bezos was using an advantage that any new online business had at that point. He just did so very skillfully, which was that online businesses were not subjected to sales tax in the states. And they had a sort of exemption, which was in order to sort of grow this nascent industry online. They had this advantage. So in any given state, it could be that you go and buy a book or you go and buy a kayak, and it's six or seven percent cheaper than it would be in a physical store. And at the time, there were a lot of mom and pop retailers on Main Street or even retailers like Wal-Mart that had a physical presence that were - that had a disadvantage when it came to what Amazon was doing. They had a six or seven percent advantage over physical stores, and they - that was a very important part of an early strategy to what they called get big fast.
There was this very early idea that Bezos had, which was that the Internet economy was going to be a land grab, and they had to get big fast. And one of their advantages that they needed to really exploit from early on was the sales tax advantage and be very careful about not opening up in states or having a physical presence in states that charge sales tax. So they strategically set up their warehouses in places - states that didn't charge it but would be across the border from a state that did charge it. So they were really strategic about keeping that advantage for as long as they could.
GROSS: So books was the first area Bezos expanded into, and he demanded concessions from publishers whose books he was selling through Amazon. So part of what the publishers were up against is that Amazon basically said, if you don't comply - that Amazon was going to lead customers to cheaper price vendors. And also that - publishers were concerned that Amazon was not only selling their books. Amazon was competing with them. So describe both of those predicaments.
JACOBY: One of Bezos' genius moves was to make Amazon into a platform or a marketplace. So there's Amazon the store, which sells you anything from books to electronics, but then he realized - he always had this vision of creating the everything store or the place where people could buy everything. But he couldn't stock all that himself in his store, so he said, all right, well, I'm going to create a platform or a marketplace for other businesses to come sell on amazon.com who had all sorts of goods that he himself didn't stock.
So essentially, he owns the platform but also has a store that exists on the platform, that is competing against all the other stores, which is now really the focus of what regulators and anti-trust enforcers are looking at, which is - is it really fair to both own the platform and have all the data that comes with it and the knowledge and be competing with all the other businesses on the platform that you own? And that's really the rub when it comes to Amazon's online business.
GROSS: Amazon has always been about, in part, collecting data. And is the data collection so as to better sell to customers, or does Bezos want to use the data for other things, too?
JACOBY: The company says that all of the data that it collects is in order to serve customers, and I think the jury's still out on that. And there's certainly businesses that will tell you that Amazon has used the data that they gather on their business and how they're doing business on Amazon to then undercut them in certain ways. If you make a widget that you're selling on Amazon and it's doing really well, the widget-maker will often say, well, Amazon then went straight to our manufacturer in China and started manufacturing our widget itself, and then there goes our business.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is James Jacoby. He's the director and the correspondent for Frontline's two-hour documentary "Amazon Empire: The Rise And Reign Of Jeff Bezos." It premieres Tuesday, February 18 on public television. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is James Jacoby. He's the director of and correspondent for a new Frontline documentary called "Amazon Empire: The Rise And Reign Of Jeff Bezos." It premieres Tuesday on public television.
So one of the biggest drivers of Amazon's growth was Amazon Prime. You pay Amazon an annual fee, and you get free two-day shipping for many, but not all goods that you could order on Amazon. So how did Prime become such a big driver of Amazon's growth?
JACOBY: Well, it's the idea of a membership program, which isn't new. But what Bezos was promising in those early days was pretty outrageous. A lot of people internally thought it was kind of a crazy idea to - you know, shipping is expensive, and it takes a huge logistical, complicated logistical operation to pull off the idea of two-day, three-day shipping in those days. I mean, this wasn't that long ago, but now we expect things same day. But a few years ago, you know, the idea of two-day shipping was almost ludicrous and that it would be free.
So Bezos came up with this idea that as long as you could get something quickly - this is what customers want - then they'd be willing to pay this fee for it. And the idea was to keep them loyal to Amazon, to get them into the Amazon ecosystem, that this would truly be the place where you would buy everything. And so you offer the customer a great incentive to stay there and to make it your go-to shopping destination online, as they put it.
And so it was kind of this ingenious move, but it was also wildly expensive for the company because the logistical operations they had to build out were enormous and would take sort of military grade precision in order to deliver on this promise. And part of the reason why Amazon is such a trusted brand in the United States is because they actually do deliver on promises and are incredibly competent in what they do. But it was - it set into motion this huge internal build out, and it's been, you know, wildly popular. I should mention, there's now 150 million Prime numbers, which is just a mind-boggling number.
GROSS: Once Bezos developed Amazon Prime, he had to open fulfillment centers, warehouses around the country in order to fulfill the two-day delivery promise. So that created a lot of jobs, but there were complaints from a lot of employees - and you go into this in the documentary - complaints about the working conditions and the speed at which they were expected to work and the constant monitoring of employees to make sure that they were working and working to capacity all the time. So tell us about some of the complaints you heard from employees.
JACOBY: Yeah, well, we spoke to dozens of current and former employees in the reporting process. And the nature of the work has changed a bit over the years. When Bezos was first building out these fulfillment centers all over the country in order to deliver on the promise of delivering packages quickly, it was almost ad hoc. It was - they were growing so quickly. And there were a lot of complaints at the time about things like heat stress. I mean, there wouldn't be the proper air conditioning in these warehouses, and people would be working like crazy to try to meet these quotas to get the packages out. People would be fainting in these warehouses. There would be injuries.
Over time, the warehouses become much more systematized and in part because of the automation of the warehouses and buying a robot company that helped to automate things. But one thing that hasn't changed in talking to workers, both current and former, is the pace of work is incredibly grueling. You have to make rates. And something we heard from, I'd say, almost every single worker we spoke to was about the rates, that, you know, the rates were really high. They have a way of kind of setting the rates for the whole warehouse that, you know, if you don't make that rate, then you can get a write-up, and if you get three write-ups, then you can be fired. There's a lot of anxiety in these warehouses about making rates. And essentially...
GROSS: And what is the rate measuring?
JACOBY: The rate essentially measures how quickly you pick and pack items. So there's a conveyor belt, and you're picking an item off the conveyor belts or off of kind of a shelf, a very high-tech shelf, and then you're packing it in a box. And so you're measured on that rate and keeping up with that rate. And those rates fluctuate. And the company will say that the rates are reasonable, but a lot of the workers we spoke to say that they're not.
GROSS: So, you know, we're talking about the difficult working conditions at a lot of the Amazon fulfillment centers. What Amazon says is, like, look - we raised the pay scale for workers. Workers are getting paid $15 an hour now, which is twice minimum wage or just about twice minimum wage. And Amazon says that's going to - you know, that's going to raise the rates for workers at other places, too. What do workers have to say about that?
JACOBY: Workers aren't necessarily complaining about the wages. They're not complaining about the fact that Amazon offers really good medical benefits to their employees. And it's something that Amazon is very quick to point out and rightfully so, that they have raised wages in their warehouses. They understand that these $15 an hour is not a great wage, but it's better - it's twice as good basically than the federal minimum wage. But I think it's really interesting right now.
I mean, Jay Carney, who's the former spokesman for President Obama and is now a senior vice president at Amazon, kind of their - Bezos' top spokesperson just had an op-ed in The New York Times recently about saying that they are this industry leader. And even Bernie Sanders called him up and said, look - you know, we applaud you for raising your wages to $15 an hour. That op-ed was written in anticipation of a scathing letter from a bunch of Democratic senators about working conditions. But it - Carney does raise a really important point, which is that Amazon has created more jobs than any other private employer in the country over the past decade and that they are an industry leader in paying these higher wages and that they do give benefits and that, in the absence of government doing anything about raising the minimum wage, they feel like they're filling the void here.
The counterargument to that would come from people, you know - for instance, from the unions - who would say, well, in a unionized environment, we'd be able to negotiate even higher wages that may be a living wage in certain parts of the country. So there's a debate about the wages, but that's not - the wages aren't really the main complaint of workers, nor are the benefits. It's more about the nature of the work, and that there really isn't - a lot of workers will tell you there's not really an opportunity to move up in the organization, to get out of these jobs, and they're so grueling, and the turnover is so high.
Interestingly, Amazon has kind of taken that complaint to heart, to some degree, that these are sort of these jobs that are kind of go-nowhere jobs. And they've taken it upon themselves to come up with this $700 million upskilling program, where they're essentially paying tuition for, I think, about 100,000 employees to go to college or to go to vocational schools to try to get better jobs. And that also is an interesting model going forward. But it does raise questions about whether that's something that we want to rely on a private company to do or something that government should be doing.
GROSS: But the bottom line question still is, is it a manageable job?
GROSS: Were they pushing people beyond rates that they could actually do?
JACOBY: That's the right question to ask, and I think a lot of workers will tell you no, it's not a manageable job to stay in for a very long time. And the more cynical view of the raising the wages to $15 an hour is that unemployment's rather low right now. So it's a tougher market for Amazon to find employees that want to take these grueling jobs, so market conditions forced them to raise the wages; it wasn't necessarily something that they did out of the goodness of their hearts, as an industry leader. It's market conditions that dictated it. Back when unemployment was high, you didn't see them raising wages. So that's what a lot of labor economists will point out to you about this decision to raise it to $15 an hour.
DAVIES: We're listening to the interview Terry recorded yesterday with James Jacoby, the correspondent and director of the PBS Frontline documentary "Amazon Empire: The Rise And Reign Of Jeff Bezos." It premieres Tuesday. After a short break, they'll talk about what Amazon didn't disclose when it released Echo and Alexa, the company's listening device and program and why Jeff Bezos has shifted his attention to space exploration. Also, rock critic Ken Tucker will review the new album from singer-songwriter John Moreland. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's home with a cold. Let's get back to the interview she recorded yesterday with James Jacoby about the new PBS Frontline documentary "Amazon Empire: The Rise And Reign Of Jeff Bezos." Jacoby is the film's director and correspondent. It premieres Tuesday. The documentary investigates how Amazon has disrupted and transformed nearly every aspect of our lives and has come under scrutiny for its tactics and expanding power.
GROSS: Let's talk about Alexa. You know, Alexa is the Amazon device that you can talk to and give instructions to. And it can play you something. It can turn something on in your house if it speaks to Alexa, you know if it's on Bluetooth. But Alexa not only listens when you ask it to do something, it's listening to other things, too. And this has become a big concern. So tell us more about Alexa as a listening device and how is what it hears is being used.
JACOBY: So Amazon takes issue with describing Alexa as a listening device, but I think that that basically is what it is in that - so there's a distinction to be made. Alexa is the artificial intelligence of Amazon. It's the voice that you are speaking to. The little devices are called an Echo, or they can be embedded in cars now or hotel rooms or even in showers. They've got Alexa - what they call Alexa-enabled devices, and there - it's now compatible, Alexa, the system is compatible with over 100,000 devices, I think.
Basically, what's going on is that with the thing in your home, the Echo device, if the microphone is on that Alexa is on, and you say Alexa, she wakes up because she's listening for that word, and then you see the blue light come on. And essentially, after she's awake, she's listening and she's recording. And she's recording so that the artificial intelligence can get smarter. So they use that data that she records in order to make Alexa smarter. So, for instance, you know, if you have a type of accent, accented English, and she's not really understanding what you're saying, what command you're giving her or what question you're asking her, there may be a team of human beings that are listening to that recording to try to understand and train her better to respond to those commands are questions.
This was not clearly disclosed to consumers, that there are teams of thousands of people around the world that are listening to the recordings, once she's awake, once that blue light is on, trying to train her better. Now, these are anonymized to some degree, these recordings, and not all recordings are listened to by human beings. But it's a rather jarring thing for people that have these devices to realize that, oh, wow, one, she's actually recording when she's awake and I'm talking to her, and, two, there's a chance that a human being is actually listening, annotating and transcribing what I'm talking about.
And we had an interesting exchange in - that's featured in the film with this guy named Robert Frederick. He's one of the founders of Amazon Web Services, their cloud computing company. And he talked about the fact that he approaches his Alexa with caution. He'll - when he wants to have a private moment in his house - he has an Alexa device; he has several - he'll press the button that disables the microphone because he doesn't want to even risk it that somehow she's triggered, she wakes up, and she records a private moment. And he doesn't want those - he doesn't - he wants to eliminate the chance that any sort of private moment could be listened to by another human being, which I think is fair and reasonable.
GROSS: So, you know, you talk about in your documentary how Amazon wants to have the entire environment miked. So what other devices has it created or purchased to mike or video our world, your world?
JACOBY: So one purchase that Amazon made recently was this company called Ring, and Ring makes these doorbell cameras. That was their first main device. And so you may see them these days, and essentially, it's a doorbell that has a camera on it. And in part, Amazon liked the idea of it because package theft is a big deal for the company, that a lot of people get packages to their door and then someone's stealing that package. So now you can watch your front step. You know, of course, if the camera's watching the front step, it's also watching the public space on the street as well, which is somewhat problematic.
But - so there's this - now this whole suite of Ring devices or Ring cameras and not just to monitor the outside of your home, but also the inside of your home. And there was a recent hack of indoor Ring cameras, which was rather frightful, where all of a sudden there's - you know, we show it in the documentary. There's a little girl in her room, and her parents had installed a Ring camera in that room, and all of a sudden there's a voice coming from the camera that's basically terrorizing her as she's alone in her room. And, you know, she's a young girl. And, you know, we feature this moment.
It was a hack, and this actually - this hack happened all around the country. And it was a rather embarrassing moment for Amazon, certainly, because here they are saying that these cameras are introduced to make your home more secure, but here's an invasion of privacy that's rather frightening.
GROSS: So is Amazon trying to do anything to prevent further hacks?
JACOBY: Yes, absolutely. I mean, the company, I think, has tried to investigate what the nature of that hack was. And the executives we spoke to about it say that they're - you know, they're putting new features in. It's - you know, that's one thing, which is to address the actual security of these devices. And we generally do have an issue with the Internet of things - that not all of these devices are secure, not everybody sets them up properly, not everybody is instructed to set them up properly.
But the larger issue at hand here is that, in some ways, these devices are being sold as a way to enhance your safety and security, but people aren't necessarily taking into account what they're introducing to their homes, the risks attendant with putting cameras that are connected to networks in their homes and on their doorsteps.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is James Jacoby. He's the director of and correspondent for the new Frontline documentary, "Amazon Empire: The Rise And Reign Of Jeff Bezos," which premieres Tuesday on PBS. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is James Jacoby. He's the director of and correspondent for Frontline's new two-hour documentary, "Amazon Empire: The Rise And Reign Of Jeff Bezos," which premieres Tuesday on public television.
I want to ask you if Amazon is being regulated at all as a monopoly, but I don't even know what to call Amazon. It's not an old-fashioned monopoly. It's the kind of entity that has never existed before. But what are the efforts to consider regulating Amazon?
JACOBY: Well, there's a rather robust investigation going on right now in Congress, bipartisan investigation in the subcommittee, antitrust subcommittee, run by David Cicilline. He's a Rhode Island congressman who - where they're really gathering testimony - one, on what it's like for businesses, large and small, to do business with Amazon in the online marketplace, but about their data gathering. They've held hearings about their Web services and what it's like for companies to do business with their Web services.
So there's a big information gathering process going on right now in Congress as to, like, what is Amazon, how do they do business? - asking the company questions that it hasn't been asked before - and to try to come up with some way to figure out how to regulate it. And at the same time, the Federal Trade Commission, which has kind of been tasked with enforcing our antitrust laws, they're in the midst of a reexamination of the fact that in their history, they've never brought an action against any of the major tech companies.
And they're in the midst of saying, OK, well, what are we going to do? We need to figure out how we enforce antitrust laws with companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google, which are distinctly different in some ways than some of the monopolies of the past.
GROSS: You know, when it comes to a government possibly regulating Amazon, there's a couple of questions that enter into the story. One is, like, should it regulate? You know, should government regulate Amazon, and if so, what aspects of it? But there's also the question, is President Trump trying to interfere with Amazon for retribution because Bezos owns The Washington Post, and Trump hates The Washington Post and considers it fake news, and considers The Post a publication that's out to get Trump? So what do you see happening with President Trump and his allies and Amazon?
JACOBY: Well, Amazon right now is challenging the fact that they lost this $10 billion contract. They were passed over for it, and it was given to Microsoft. And their challenge is saying that President Trump essentially corrupted the process because he doesn't like Bezos. And he's made it clear that he doesn't like Bezos in Tweets and elsewhere because Bezos owns The Washington Post. It's one of the craziest wrinkles in the whole story, which is that, you know, Bezos bought The Post well before Trump became president or was a candidate for president.
But Bezos' ownership of The Washington Post has made him a target for the president's ire. And so it'll be interesting if, for instance, the Federal Trade Commission, which is independent from the president - but still, he appointed the chairman there - whether they take an enforcement action against Amazon, and that in some way that could be construed as a political act. I would urge caution about that. I think that the FTC would probably take that independently.
But just the mere fact that that could be insinuated because the president doesn't like Bezos makes for a really interesting time right now when it comes to this. And what's also interesting is that the president raises some valid points about Amazon, you know. And so I think that for some of the critics of Amazon, it's a very strange thing that their criticisms are echoed by President Trump, because those aren't necessarily natural bedfellows.
GROSS: Do you think any of the Democratic candidates have interesting proposals for regulating Amazon?
JACOBY: Yes. I mean, I think Elizabeth Warren has really been at the forefront of thinking through what to do with Amazon and the other big tech companies. And really, I mean, before she was even running for president really did open up a conversation about the concentration of power, especially monopoly power, among the big tech companies. And, I mean, she's come up, as she does, with a very detailed proposal. But she's also made a big deal of the idea of break them up, which can mean a lot of different things. Essentially, what break them up really means, though, is that - to try to limit the lines of business that Amazon can engage in.
So, for instance, Amazon is this platform for online commerce that they themselves are competing on as a store against other stores and retailers. So she has this idea of, maybe they shouldn't be competing on a platform that they own. Maybe they shouldn't be allowed to be doing that because they have an unfair advantage. That's in part what break them up means. And so I think it's certainly something that Congress is going to be considering. And I, you know, I think some of the other candidates have been supportive of that idea, of breaking them up.
GROSS: Amazon owns so many companies. Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. Amazon has contracted with the CIA for cloud computing services. They're selling facial recognition services to police departments. I mean, Amazon is involved with just about everything. And Bezos' big goal is to get into outer space. So let's talk about that for a second. What are his plans?
JACOBY: When it comes to Jeff Bezos, he's got two CEOs that are running Amazon. And he has stepped away a bit from the company - I mean, he's helping to expand it into India and other places. But as we understand it, his primary goal is to focus on his company, Blue Origin. And Blue Origin is his space exploration company. It's his rocket ship company. And essentially, it's the fulfillment of something that has been his lifelong goal and plan, which is to, as he puts it, build the infrastructure to go to space and to it make cost-effective for us to figure out what to do in space.
And he claims - and I think he's genuine in believing this - that he wants to save planet Earth. And his whole idea is that he doesn't - he wants there to be dynamism and growth. He believes in capitalism. He believes in consumerism. He believes that all of these advancements of energy usage and things that we're doing here are for the better, but obviously, they're hurting the planet, and that we're going to need to look to the heavens, essentially, to figure out how we can continue to live in a world of dynamism and growth. And that, in Jeff Bezos' mind, means we may need to move heavy industry into space. We may need to mine other planets or planetary objects for their resources, or we may need to actually build space colonies. And he is really serious about this.
GROSS: Well, it's a complicated vision because - do we want outer space to be owned by a private company?
JACOBY: Yeah, I think that that's complicated. I think that there are other - obviously, other very wealthy people that have their space endeavors have similar things in mind. The way that Bezos thinks about it is - he's going to spend a billion dollars of his own fortune every year, pump it into Blue Origin, this company. And by the way, Blue Origin is also seeking out a lot of federal contracts to try to do this, to send satellites up - contracts with the intelligence community, contracts with the Department of Defense, contracts with the - with NASA because even the richest person in the world can't fund this himself. He needs the help of the federal government.
GROSS: Did you change your mind about anything pertaining to Amazon or Bezos through the course of doing the documentary?
JACOBY: Yeah, I mean, certainly. It's - in the course of reporting this for the past year with my partner, Anya Bourg, and Megan Robertson, who went through every shred of footage of Jeff Bezos over the years to try to kind of see what he was saying as the company was growing - I mean, you can't help but be absolutely astounded by what he's done. I think, though, one of the things that - it just felt for the past year of - like, OK, on one hand, it's amazing, because we're all enjoying these inventions. You know, PBS runs on Amazon Web Services, right? And I am actually - I am a Prime member, you know? So you're dealing with all these conflicts as you go along.
But I think that Franklin Foer in the film puts it best, which is, like, everything that's amazing or awesome about Jeff Bezos and Amazon is also something to be feared about Amazon and Jeff Bezos. And that really - at the end of the day, you know, I think what I was surprised by was just how complicated this is - you know, the nature of the power that comes with being such an innovator and such an inventor but also how problematic that is that so much power is pooled into the hands of one company and one man.
GROSS: James Jacoby, thank you so much for talking with us.
JACOBY: Thank you.
DAVIES: James Jacoby spoke with Terry Gross yesterday. He's the correspondent and director of the new "Frontline" documentary "Amazon Empire: The Rise And Reign Of Jeff Bezos." It premieres Tuesday on PBS. You can also see it on the PBS Video app and pbs.org/frontline. After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review the new album from singer-songwriter John Moreland. This is FRESH AIR.
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