Why We Need Alternatives to Ecommerce Giants Like Amazon

Amazon has seen incredible growth since its founding in 1994. Originally focused on books, the online marketplace is now the largest retailer in the US, and the fourth most valuable public company in the world. With its recent acquisition of Whole Foods, it becomes even more valuable.

Shopping with Amazon is quick and convenient, so much so that it’s starting to become the default method of shopping for many people, just as Google became the default method to search the internet. And just like Google, Amazon collects a staggering amount of information about everyone that uses their platform.

Unfortunately, if Amazon (or any retailer) gains the status of default shopping method for a majority of people, they then have an enormous potential to abuse their power. While it’s possible that they might be responsible stewards of their power, there should always be alternatives to using Amazon that protect a user’s privacy and place commerce transactions outside of Amazon’s control.

What could Amazon do?

It might not be readily apparent how a large retailer could abuse their power, but consider how much information about buyers and sellers Amazon collects, taken directly from their site:

  1. Name
  2. Address
  3. Phone number(s)
  4. Email Address
  5. Credit card(s) information
  6. People to whom purchases have been shipped, including addresses and phone number
  7. E-mail addresses of your friends and other people
  8. Content of reviews and e-mails to Amazon
  9. Personal description and photograph in Amazon Profile
  10. Financial information, including Social Security and driver’s license numbers
  11. Location while using Kindle or other Amazon apps
  12. Searches and browsing while on Amazon
  13. Purchases and sales of products
  14. Your voice if using Alexa or other voice services

That’s only the information that you voluntarily give them. They also collect information automatically when you visit the site:

Examples of the information we collect and analyze include the Internet protocol (IP) address used to connect your computer to the Internet; login; e-mail address; password; computer and connection information such as browser type, version, and time zone setting, browser plug-in types and versions, operating system, and platform; purchase history, which we sometimes aggregate with similar information from other customers to create features like Top Sellers ; the full Uniform Resource Locator (URL) clickstream to, through, and from our Web site, including date and time; cookie number; products you viewed or searched for; and the phone number you used to call our 800 number. We may also use browser data such as cookies, Flash cookies (also known as Flash Local Shared Objects), or similar data on certain parts of our Web site for fraud prevention and other purposes. During some visits we may use software tools such as JavaScript to measure and collect session information, including page response times, download errors, length of visits to certain pages, page interaction information (such as scrolling, clicks, and mouse-overs), and methods used to browse away from the page. We may also collect technical information to help us identify your device for fraud prevention and diagnostic purposes.

If you use Amazon, they know who you are, where you live, what you buy or sell, even what you want to buy or sell. They know your payment information and history, they know your friends and family, they know details about your web browsers, computers, mobile devices.

At any given moment this is a lot of information, but when tracked over years it becomes a detailed look into an individual’s life. With this much data, inferences can be made about nearly every facet of someone’s life.

The most innocuous thing Amazon could do with this information is to lose control of it. Breaches of company databases are constantly occurring. With the sheer amount of user information, Amazon’s servers are a highly valuable target for any malicious party.

If you trust Amazon to keep your data secure from unauthorized access, then you still be to be concerned about who they authorize to access your information. If Amazon becomes the default shopping method for most people, then it becomes the ultimate tool for oppressive governments to conduct surveillance and control commerce. Amazon already censors their marketplace heavily, and there’s nothing preventing Amazon from reporting users who attempt to sell or search for items that are prohibited by the authorities in various jurisdictions.

If Amazon were willing to share their data with governments — or compelled to do so — those authorities could abuse that information in numerous ways. They could cross-reference the sales figures of a store with tax filings to enforce tax compliance. They could access user location information to track individuals. They could look at purchases and search history — particularly their media consumption — to determine someone’s ideological or political affiliations.

What Amazon Has Done

There are many ways Amazon could abuse their power, but not all of them are theoretical. Amazon has taken advantage of their ecommerce giant status in the past.

  • In 2009, Amazon deleted copies of 1984 and Animal Farm from user’s devices without their permission.
  • In 2010, Amazon kicked Wikileaks off of its servers following political pressure from the US government.
  • Various Amazon users have had their accounts closed, and gift card balances taken, without any clarification from Amazon itself.
  • Amazon has continually been under fire for how it treats its own employees.
  • A 2016 investigation from ProPublica showed that Amazon’s search promoted their own products over competitors — even when competitors were higher ranked and cheaper.
     This year, Amazon handed over the Alexa voice recordings of a suspect undergoing an investigation to Arkansas prosecutors (to their credit, Amazon fought this in court first).

This is what’s known about how Amazon behaves, but we don’t know how they behave outside the public’s eye. We can only speculate how they will behave in the future.

We Need Private Alternatives to Amazon

It’s possible that if Amazon becomes too onerous that people would switch platforms to another company that was more friendly to their users. However, switching to another platform controlled by any company or organization is no guarantee that the new platform would be any better long term.

Is there any way to really break out of this cycle?

Yes. Now, instead of just hoping that Amazon (or another company) will respect its users’ privacy and not abuse their power, users can exchange goods online in an environment free from centralized companies entirely.

How is it possible to transact online with no company at the center, controlling it?

Removing the middleman entirely from the picture is the only way to ensure that no one is even capable of gaining a position of power over others in an open marketplace. A decentralized marketplace, such as OpenBazaar, doesn’t have any company or organization that collects and stores users’ data or censors their trade. It works because of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, which are also decentralized and don’t require third parties to facilitate the exchange, and because of the power of our own personal computers.

In this new environment people’s information and transactions are secure and users are the ones who are in control; they trade directly with each other and don’t need to trust any company or organization with their data.

It’s important to have choices in what you are going to buy as well as the networks you are going to use. We have built a marketplace that aligns with our core values of giving choices to individuals who want to control more of their information online.

If you’re looking for a new way to buy and sell goods online that is completely different than anything you’ve seen before, check out OpenBazaar.

Originally published at blog.openbazaar.org on July 7, 2017.