FRONTLINE presents Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos

Feb 18, 2020


There's a feud between the richest person in the world and the president to the United States. Well certainly the president doesn't like Jeff Bezos,  he thinks that Jeff Bezos who owns the Washington Post has been dictating what the president sees as negative coverage of him and his presidency going back even to his candidacy.  We should be quick to mention here that they that Jeff Bezos doesn't dictate the coverage of the Washington Post, Marty Baron the editor there, and he is fiercely independent and Bezos  really leaves all of the editorial to The Post and just really finances the operation and helps them to modernize.  But the President of the United States sees Bezos as an enemy. That's just one reason that this is interesting. It's also just interesting because how did Jeff Bezos come to be so wealthy and so powerful? Amazon is in so many businesses and does so many things that most of us are not even aware of you know a 150 million of us are Prime subscribers and click on their almost every day to get things delivered and really wanted to look under the hood of a company that has come to be in some ways unavoidable for all of us in our society and just see what it's all about really trace it all the way through from the the idea to present day. 

And what did you find because over time technologies have changed which have benefited Amazon. How transformative was this? Can you explain some of the growing pains that Jeff Bezos and his company were experiencing.

Sure, I mean, this was transformative and you have to kind of situate yourself back in the mid 90's and Jeff Bezos was working on Wall Street at a hedge fund and was asked by boss there to look into the World Wide Web at that point in time which was just in its nascent stages and Bezos recognized, oh, my goodness, this is the usage of the World Wide Web is growing at this crazy percent year 2,300% a year he said basically someone's going to own this, someone's going to dominate this new space, it might as well be me. If you think about that he wanted to become the shopping destination for people online and no one at that point really knew what that meant but he pursued that vision so incredibly well in such a calculated amazing way, dogged way, and it's sort of been the in some ways the winner take all. We all became a part of the Amazon online shopping experience. In terms of the technology changing, sure that there's been so many different advancements but really what it was about was pursuing this vision of how were human beings going to shop in the future, and Bezos coming up with a plan to figure out how to be the one place where people shopped. And he's kind of been successful about that. But then, be able to transform that into so many other businesses; cloud computing, facial recognition and artificial intelligence and voice recognition with Alexa devices. It's endless what he's been able to do starting just with that visionary idea of shopping online.

Right now, there is the issue with the bid that went out with the government and with the Defense Department. Now, we have a lawsuit where Bezos is actually going after the President of the United States.

Yes. So, there was this huge $10 billion contract that Department of Defense had put out there to modernize their digital infrastructure, cloud computing, that means their servers their data collection their ability to analyze and crunch that data to really modernize the military in a very significant way. And Amazon was expected to win this contract because Amazon is certainly the undisputed king of the cloud that the leader in the technology has millions of businesses and other government institutions, including the CIA that rely on their cloud computing services and this was going to go to Amazon most likely. Until, the president started speaking out publicly and saying, look there was a lot of chatter, especially chatter that was fermented by Amazon's competitors, Microsoft and Oracle saying there may be something unseemly about this contract going to Amazon. A lot of rumors spreading around the Bezos was currying influence with you know General Mattis and others in the military. But the thing was there was a lot of smoke there was no fire but the president said we're going to look into this and then all of a sudden the contractors to Microsoft which stunned everybody. And now, Bezos has sued essentially to stop the Microsoft contract from going through because they're claiming that the President of the United States corrupted the contract, corrupted the whole process. And we'll see this may play out in the courts.

In your estimation, how powerful is Amazon?

I mean, it's extraordinarily powerful. Just data alone. We live in a data-driven economy. Data, it's cliche at this point to say it, but it's true that data is really the new oil you can know a helluva lot about us from our data from how we navigate the Web to our devices and to what we say to our devices. And Amazon really has some of the richest data there is, I mean, whether it's what we do? What we shop? What we read? How we read? What we say to our Alexa devices? They have incredible access to our intimacies and I think that that I think we're all recognizing now that that is power. That is incredibly powerful to make predictions about us, for artificial intelligence, to know about us in ways that we don't even know ourselves and that is where the future is headed and Amazon is poised to capitalize on all of it.

What are your concerns when it comes to the freedoms of Americans? How intrusive is Amazon?

I am concerned because I think for instance, about data, there's a 100 million Alexa devices and these devices when every time you talk to your Alexa device, you're training Amazon's artificial intelligence. You're training their system to be able to respond to commands respond to questions but at the same time you're revealing the hull of a lot about what you're doing in any given day. When you are, at what time of day do you ask a certain question. What your habits are.  All of these things can be analyzed and integrated in ways that could unknowingly affect your life and that I think is really of concern and I think that folks in Washington are starting to really recognize that these big data companies need to in some way have guardrails on what they can and can't do with our data and how they can collect it and when they can collect it. And I think that that conversation is just beginning, but it can't happen soon enough.

Has the horse left the barn on this?

Maybe. Maybe. I mean, these companies, we're not just talking about Amazon, GOOGLE and Facebook, and all of the major tech companies are light years ahead of regulators and lawmakers. That's not to say that folks in Washington shouldn't try to do something. The European Union is implemented certain new laws about data collection and data analysis but I think it's a very important question to ask whether the horse has left the barn? Probably has, but that's not to say that you can't reign in the horse after it's left. 

Tonight at 9 o'clock on WGVU Public Television, it's the 2-hour premiere of FRONTLINE's investigation Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos. Award-winning producer Jim Jacoby, thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me.