American Corporations: The Business of Exploitation

This is a part of our Sideline Scholars series, which is made up of articles written for class at our respective universities.

America loves its corporations. They represent the pillars of American culture through their international influence and capitalistic nature. Tech companies such as Facebook, Amazon and Google have all skyrocketed to be some of the most iconic organizations in the nation. To work there is most college students’ dream as the companies promise endless innovation, state of the art technology and healthy salaries. 

However, there is a widespread cognitive dissonance in America with how we view these huge tech corporations. On one hand, these companies are viewed to be the leaders of American business development and are sought after by premier job-seekers and investors alike. On the other hand, these tech conglomerates have demonstrated a disturbing pattern of corporate greed as they have often opted to ditch social responsibility in favor of profit. A lack of ethics is ingrained in these tech corporations and they have routinely displayed a willingness to exploit its customers, competition and employees for profit. Even so, American institutions and consumers do not widely acknowledge the poor intentions of such evil corporations. Tech powerhouses’ half hearted apologizes and insignificant policy changes have been gladly welcomed by the American people as an excuse to not address the underlying problem of corporate greed.

Google, Amazon, Facebook and Disney all cover pivotal facets of the American experience. Search engines such as Google are so pivotal in the modern digital age as its search results and advertisements shape our digital experience, and inherently our perception of the world around us. Amazon is the peak of United States consumerism and capitalism as it has the American people addicted to its low prices and quick shipping. Facebook carved the path of modern social media, all while garnering masses of user data and pivoting into an advertising platform. Media-mecca, Disney, has expanded into an overarching cultural icon with its ownership of ESPN, CBS and Marvel, just to name a few. All of these organizations have an established history of lack of social responsibility and exploiting the industries they represent. 

Google is the iconic tech company. With the internet serving as a stepping stone to modern communication and our online database of knowledge, Google has thrust itself as the poster child of innovative tech. With this growth, the conglomerate has accumulated massive fines and backlash for unethical practices that fueled its rise.

First, serving as one of the premier search engines, Google has learned that they can bend markets around their own platform. Search neutrality is the concept that search engines will be unbiased in how their prioritize certain results. Similarly to net neutrality, this proves especially important as allowing large corporations such as Google to be paid for which media, news and products are visible on their platforms could shape the perspective and experience of its users. The Google search algorithm and website prioritization allows for complete control over the relevance and business of other organizations. If Google decided that a certain site wasn’t reputable enough, it could be cast off into the obscurity of neglected search results. 

In 2017, Google was slapped with a $2.7 billion fine by the European Union for configuring its search engine to prefer Google content and products. An EU investigative commission analyzed the results of “1.7 billion real Google search queries,” concluding that Google “placed results from competing online shopping services only on the fourth page of its results.” This illegal configuration stifled healthy business competition and allowed Google to control a huge component of the online shopping world.

However, Google has no problem serving as a medium for other businesses when they buy into Google’s extensive ad network: Google Adsense. Unsurprisingly, their ad policies have got them in hot water as well. Back in 2011, Google had to pay a $500 million settlement to the US Department of Justice for letting Canadian pharmacies use Google ads to sell unregulated drugs to American consumers. Google was informed back in 2003 that Canadian pharmacies were illegally selling prescription drugs to Americans through their ads, but did nothing. This allowed for many years of potential drug abuse as Americans could afford to pay premium prices for Canadian drugs with only a brief consultation with a pharmacist. 

The FDA has no oversight or quality control over drugs being sold by foreign pharmacies. Thus, a largely uncontrolled and unregulated drug market was able to be funneled through Google advertisements. Reports state that Google not only permitted the illegal ads, but “assisted these pharmacies in bypassing the controls they had put in place to prevent the abuse.”  

So while Google may allow for potential drug abuse and exploitation to occur through their platform – so long as they make money off of it – they have taken the time to diminish the reputability of other businesses through its search engine. Because the corporation has full autonomy over its digital public sphere, the many facets of search neutrality and the overall digital experience of the Google user could be threatened if ethics are sidelined for greater company profit. 

Google not only permitted the illegal ads, but ‘assisted these pharmacies in bypassing the controls they had put in place to prevent the abuse.'”  

Amazon has skyrocketed itself to be a household name in the 21st century. Boasting two-day shipping, over 300 million products, quick customer service and affordable pricing, the tech company solidified itself in the daily consumer world. It’s the second largest private employer in the U.S. and sells more than a third of all online retail products in the nation. America is hooked on Amazon, and can you blame it? It speaks toward all the pillars of American capitalism with its promise of jobs and unparalleled consumer gratification.

All of which has allowed for the unparalleled influence of the cooperation as it has even outranked the government with its extensive tax breaks. The concerns of Amazon’s hold of the American economy has ignited concern from politicians from both sides of the aisle. At one of the latest Democratic debates, Senator Bernie Sanders said, “Five hundred thousand Americans are sleeping out on the street, and yet companies like Amazon, that made billions in profits, did not pay one nickel in federal income tax.” Even Steven Mnuchin, President Trump’s current Treasury Secretary, claimed Amazon has “destroyed the retail industry across the United States.” 

Amazon’s unprecedented control of the online marketplace has let them impose significant control over vendors and their products. These vendors often have to set unsustainably low prices, provide consumer data to Amazon and adhere to autocratic rule of Jeff Bezos just to compete with the countless competitors on the platform. 

Birkenstocks – one of the top sandal brands in the nation – was one of the many victims of Amazon’s oppressive culture. David Kahan, Birkenstock CEO, claims that Amazon allowed for multiple vendors to sell fake Birkenstocks and was uncooperative in shutting them down. Not only did Amazon’s search algorithm favor these counterfeit sandals, Amazon went on to buy a year’s supply of Birkenstock sandals. Kahan called that move “terrifying” as Amazon’s control over the Birkenstock supply meant the sandal company “could totally lose control of our brand.” Amazon’s excessive capital allows them to make such tremendous bulk buys, letting them control the basic components of supply and demand. Birkenstock tried to cooperate with Amazon and understand what were their plans for the sandals, but to little avail. Without any agreement from Kahan, Amazon could giveaway countless sandals or sell them at ridiculously low prices, completely altering the market and demand for Birkenstock’s sandals and leaving them powerless to control their own product.

This influence has extended to economic policy as well, particularly with federal taxes. Financial statements reveal that Amazon paid zero U.S. federal income tax for 2018. By employing the use of loopholes in tax breaks such as company research, tech development and paying employees in stock rather than wages, Amazon was able to receive around $1.5 billion in tax breaks. 

The construction of their fulfillment centers have also been known to bring state governments to a kneel, all offering various tax breaks, bonuses and governmental incentives for Amazon to set up shop in their state. Amazon can also follow the path of tech giants such as Google and Amazon, moving their profits outside of the U.S. in order to avoid U.S. taxes. This all demonstrates Amazon’s willingness to prioritize internal profit over the greater good of the communities and institutions it serves.

These bad faith practices continue to show as news organizations have revealed that Amazon has allowed the “sale of illegal or deadly products,” and its “fast-delivery policies have resulted in drivers speeding down streets and through intersections, killing people.” Employees across the country deal with poor work conditions and unrealistic expectations. Workers at fulfillment centers may be forced to walk upwards of 15 miles a day while having the speed of their walking, downtime and bathroom breaks timed and measured for efficiency. Warehouse workers are fired if they reach a minimum threshold for efficiency, forcing them to deal with injuries and extreme fatigue while on the job.  

Warehouse employees have taken notice and begun to speak out against Amazon’s workplace culture. One employee said workers got fired “because they were too old, or their knees started acting up, or they just had a bad week.” While vending machines that provide painkillers to workers are noted to be available at the fulfillment centers, sufficient air-conditioning was not widely installed until 2011, following reports “of workers passing out and requiring emergency medical treatment for heat-related problems.” So while Amazon may bring jobs and stimulate local economies, many of their workers are exploited and forced to endure a toxic work culture. It’s one thing to be incredibly demanding of your executives and higher-level team members, but the ill treatment of the blue collar worker proves problematic.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is worth $136 billion, but has only made an effort to donate two percent of his wealth.

Back in 2004, Facebook paved the way for modern social media platforms that promised a medium for connecting and global online discourse. Now, it has exhibited a consistent theme of data misuse and privacy violations. With 99% of their revenue coming from targeted advertisements – totaling $56 billion last year – Facebook’s business model has pivoted from being a platform for connecting to a medium for advertisers. This has led them to develop into a data storage site that utilizes its users’ information to bring individually targeted ads for a higher engagement rate.

This data storage and information has a history of being misused by third party businesses. The Cambridge Analytica case serves as the forefront of Facebook data exploitation. Due to a loophole in Facebook’s programming, Cambridge Analytica was able to harvest and sell almost 50 million Facebook users’ data. This data was then sold to the SCL group, which used the information to plan the Trump campaign and mass target susceptible voters and potential donors. 

While Facebook never outwardly condoned such a data breach, they did allow for businesses to practice problematic ad targeting on Facebook users. Only until a policy change in July, Facebook permitted advertisers to specifically target people based on race, gender and religion. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Communications Workers of America are claim that “Facebook allowed advertisers to prevent certain groups, like women over 40, families with children and black Americans, from seeing offers for housing and employment.” Facebook Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, went as far to admit discriminatory advertising had been taking place on the platform: “There is a long history of discrimination in the areas of housing, employment and credit and this harmful behavior should not happen through Facebook ads.”

Facebook promises an end to discriminatory targeting through a new policy that prevents business from specifying ad audiences based on race, gender or religion. However, there are so many data points available on each user such as location, interests and age – that businesses could theoretically put together enough data points to correlate an audience with a certain race, gender or religion. This essentially renders Facebook’s policy change as a half-hearted attempt to end a continual theme of data exploitation.

Media conglomerate, Disney, renders as a case study of how the American culture and experience can be compromised for corporation profit. Just these last couple weeks have shown how China can bring American businesses to a knee to keep the Chinese people available as a market. China has four times the population of the United States and its people have shown continued interest in American culture.

Disney serves as one of the forefronts of the Chinese interest in American culture. From Marvel, ESPN, ABC, Pixar, 21st Century Fox, to all the classic Disney movies, the Walt Disney Corporation the greatest portion of American film and television. While this overarching power may conflict antitrust laws, it’s Disney’s greater ability to control our modern culture and media that should be the leading cause for concern. 

China is no stranger to censoring media that conflicts the government’s ideals and image. Disney’s Winnie-the-Pooh was “banned in China online and at movie theaters” because online commentators said “he resembles the portly President Xi Jinping.” This Chinese control over foreign businesses has extended to companies such as American Airlines and Mercedes-Benz. China made American Airlines officially treat Taiwan as a part of China, and forced Mercedes-Benz to publicly apologize for quoting the Dalai Lama. A Marriott employee was even fired for liking a tweet that showed support for Tibetan independence.

If China finds offense from an innocent bear, one can only imagine that steps they would take to scrub any western media that promotes minority and LGBTQ+ communities. They have made it abundantly clear that progressive western culture – or really any foreign culture – is not welcomed in China. With Disney serving as the creator for much of our media culture, they have the opportunity to take steps to fix the greater problem of equal representation in film and television. But nonetheless, it doesn’t take an expert to see that most Disney productions are overwhelmingly white-washed and often opt to cast straight men as its stars.

Disney knows so much of its audience – and therefore, profit – is from China. Therefore, their interests lie in satisfying the Chinese government’s values before the progressive wave of America. Nicholas Kristo from the New York times says it best: “Xi doesn’t want to censor information just in his own country; he also wants to censor our own discussions in the West.” All the while China is detaining “at least one million Muslims, in what may be the biggest internment of people based on religion since the Holocaust,” companies such as Disney see no problem in catering to a Chinese audience. Similarly to how the authoritative government is oppressing its own people, China is bullying American companies into conforming to its strict rules on censorship and uniformity. Disney follows the grain and fumbles the opportunity to promote social responsibility in order to get approval and profit from an authoritarian regime.

Corporate responsibility is something that has been long lost in the American business sphere. The greed for the dollar is ingrained at the highest levels of American corporations, as they often grow accustomed to sacrificing ethics in exchange for profit. Facebook and Google built their platforms off of web accessibility, but meddled with search results, advertisements and data misuse to exploit its users. Amazon continues to demonstrate its intent not to be undermined by any government institution or its people, bypassing tax laws and the ethics of fair employee treatment. Jeff Bezos is even worth $136 billion but only opted to donate less than two percent of his wealth. Disney controls much of the American movie and television industry but prioritizes the values of the Chinese government to avoid censorship. This leads them to promote conservative themes and lack demographic representation that hinders the progressive development of American media.

Our digital age has provided our modern tech giants with such an unparalleled influence and revenue stream, leaving the institutions and people they serve powerless. Regardless, these corporations hero American capitalistic culture. Promises of jobs, cheap and immediate products and tech growth satisfy our status quo of a healthy economy. However, with the path of unparalleled influence and power these companies are gaining, either the American people or its corporations must reevaluate the cost of unethical business.

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