UPDATE: This column has been updated to include a statement from Amazon, which says it does not sell customer information.
Now that the bloom is off the proverbial rose in our decade-long love affair with social-media giants Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, it might surprise you to know that the fourth horseman of the digi-pocalypse, Amazon, may represent an even greater threat to democracy.
After all, it's one thing to "own" the distribution of online news; it's quite another to own the distribution of absolutely everything else.
So far, Amazon and its mega-billionaire CEO Jeff Bezos have, in addition to owning a growing percentage of the sales and distribution of consumer goods, either staked out or captured the following huge sectors of the world economy:
- Home services
- Smart homes
- Streaming entertainment
- Health care
- Managed hosting
- Parcel delivery
While it's not as if Amazon's own-the-world strategy is floating under the radar, the breadth of the strategy startled me when the CEO of U.K.-based device repair company Repairly emailed me a link to the infographic that I've reproduced at the bottom of this post.
What's frightening about the list isn't that Amazon is winning in all of those categories. They have a very small market share in groceries, for instance. Even in retail sales, Walmart, with $481 billion in U.S. revenue, dwarfs Amazon at $136 billion a year.
What's frightening, in my humble opinion, is that Amazon is growing very rapidly in many of those markets and stands positioned to grow rapidly in many others. And that list doesn't even mention Bezos's long-shot bets, like commercial space travel.
According to a statement from an Amazon spokesperson: "Information about our customers is an important part of our business, and we are not in the business of selling it to others."
Even so, I can't help but wonder. As a fan of dystopian science fiction, I have to think that the story of one huge company dominating the world economy isn't one likely to end well. Especially since Amazon isn't exactly known for a tradition of public service.
Quite the contrary. Bezos has famously created a cut-throat company that's more than willing to cut things close to the edge, like forcing employees to work unpaid overtime, and use its market clout to screw suppliers, like when it strong-armed the publisher Hachette in 2014.
To make matters worse, Amazon might be as guilty as the social-media giants when it comes to tracking consumer data and selling it to the highest bidder. They've not been caught, like Facebook, but who knows what might go on inside that ethical vacuum?
Anyway, here's the infographic from Repairly: