Amazon's Controversial Bet on U.S. Elections
Updated: Oct 18, 2019
With its huge size and scope, almost everything Amazon does these days causes a stir. But one aspect of its business may prove to be the most controversial of them all.
Last week, Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) committed just over $1 million towards revamping electoral infrastructure in its hometown of Seattle, bringing its total investment in local politics to about $1.5 million. Though these figures were relatively small, especially by Jeff Bezos’s standards, they did manage to draw public attention to a broader shift that’s been taking place over the past few years — namely, Amazon’s ramped-up investment in the business and technology of U.S. elections.
Of course, any shared mention of electoral politics and Big Tech is likely to fall unpleasantly on the American ear, with its reminder of the data analytics and privacy scandals of 2016. However, the administrative, legal, technological, and security demands involved in conducting a state-wide or nation-wide election must be handled by someone, and increasingly the federal government needs an extra hand to keep democracy running as smoothly as possible. Enter Amazon Web Services, the e-commerce giants hugely profitable cloud computing division.
Prior to the divisive 2016 Presidential Election, Amazon Web Services (AWS) had not been much of a player in the election services space. However, the company has been massively expanding its technology’s presence to the point where its services are now used by both of the major political parties in more than 40 states. More troublingly, AWS also powers much of the technology used by the Federal Election Commission, the agency tasked with enforcing campaign finance legislation. This includes providing digital security, storing registration and ballot data, and facilitating voters from the military who are stationed overseas, as well as supplying live election results.
Considering the sensitivity of the data at hand, Amazon’s ability to exert any damaging influence over the country has been reduced through secure systems and a distributed presence across constituencies. Indeed, it is not even the only major tech company engaged in the space: Microsoft’s (NASDAQ: MSFT) Azure cloud computing service is a distant runner-up in election platforms. As one AWS executive has put it, “the Amazon cloud is being trusted to power in some way, some aspect of elections,” which accurately reflects the company’s relatively modest role in assisting the democratic process.
Even still, Amazon has been no stranger to politics in the more conventional sense, with CEO Jeff Bezos succeeding in drawing the ire of leaders as diverse as Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Warren has been an especially vocal critic of Silicon Valley. Her candidacy’s best-known policy proposal is to break up Big Tech companies in the name of promoting competition and innovation. Amazon’s contribution to electoral technology could be perceived as further evidence that Bezos — the world’s richest man — is hell-bent on making the world his own private fiefdom. Meanwhile, the e-commerce giant might want to learn from Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) that the consequences of mixing corporate technology with politics are impossible to predict.
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