The Blog

You Can’t Trust Amazon When It Feels Threatened

Calendar Icon 03.31.2021
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Last week, someone behind the @AmazonNews Twitter account took a fistful of pills, washed them down with a handle of Old Grand-Dad, and started tweeting.

They picked fights with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. They also argued with Wisconsin’s congressional Representative Mark Pocan.

And while all of this is embarrassing and highly cringey, my problem entirely centers around a single tweet in the midst of the storm that says in part: “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?”

Wait a second. Are you seriously asking if I believe in something that has been independently reported by multiple reputable media outlets?

Yes. I absolutely do. Most people will.

My problem is not that Amazon told an easily disprovable lie about something on the retail side of their business; that’s relatively minor—and, at any rate, isn’t anywhere close to my area of focus: their cloud division.

The problem is what that teaches us as customers. We should continue to trust Amazon and Amazonians that we encounter in the course of doing businesses. They’re all well-intentioned people working to do right by us, because Customer Obsession matters to them. We should also trust and continue to trust AWS official communications—when the stakes are low.

But what Amazon has just demonstrated for all the world to see is that when they’re facing a significant obstacle, when it matters to them, they’ll toss leadership principles like Earn Trust and Customer Obsession and Are Right, A Lot to the wind and say whatever’s expedient.

This is a terrifying bell that can’t be unrung

You might well wonder how this matters at all; companies tell small lies constantly about all manner of things, and Twitter statements should be seen in that light.

For many companies, you’d be completely correct. But Amazon is different.

In all the time I’ve been tracking virtually everything that AWS says about virtually everything, I’ve never once caught them lying to me. They will decline to answer, or give partial answers. But they have never once said something that wasn’t true. When they requested clarification on my article about Zoom choosing Oracle Cloud, they didn’t disagree with the contents of the article; they cared strongly that we told the full story. That counts for an awful lot.

Some may think that this is a naive position for me to take. But I’ve done some extensive backchannel digging into many of the things AWS PR has told me over the years, with folks who would have let me know if I were being misled. It’s never turned into anything. “Trust, but verify,” as the man said.

But with this tweet, that entire sentiment changes from “they haven’t lied” to “they haven’t lied about something germane to cloud in a way in which I’ve caught them doing so” because we’ve just seen them lie to the world when they’re facing something that they perceive to be an existential threat to one of their lines of business (i.e., unionization).

This teaches us that—when it’s a big enough deal—Amazon will lie to us. And coming from the company that runs the production infrastructure for our companies, stores our data, and has been granted an outsized position of trust based upon having earned it over 15 years, this is a nightmare.

It extends beyond retail

Look—personally, I don’t care that much if the company that sells me my underpants lies about something that impacts their ability to maintain their margins on selling me those underpants. I don’t like it, and I feel annoyed and betrayed as a customer (and as a human being) that they did it. But it’s not something that I’m going to lose sleep over.

But when the same company goes on the record to “set the record straight” about the Pentagon’s JEDI contract? Suddenly that denial and statement has to be viewed in the context of “if it’s important enough, they will lie to us about it” and weighed accordingly.

This isn’t just a subtle shade of nuance; it changes everything. When Bloomberg published its ridiculous Big Hack story a few years back and AWS denied it, my immediate comment was that if AWS is denying it, it flat out didn’t happen—because they don’t lie.

After last week, I wouldn’t make that claim at all; I’d wait for more data.

When AWS says that they don’t use customer data or metadata to help inform their retail business, I have to now weigh that in the context of “they might be doing that and lying to us about it.”

If a news outlet releases a story about something related to AWS internals and how they do (or don’t!) work, this statement now provides the basis for all customers to reasonably question whether or not AWS is being truthful in its response.

It’s not the snark

I want to be explicit here: It’s not the snark that Amazon is engaging in. If it wants to try to be the enterprise version of the Wendy’s twitter account, go for it. It’s a weird strategy, but knock yourselves out.

If Amazon wants to start picking fights with Democratic officials because Donald Trump took a remedial English class and landed a job as an Amazonian social media manager? You do you, I suppose. I don’t like it, but I’ll deal.

But when you start actively lying to your customers, critics, and the rest of the world? You’ve crossed a bridge that can’t be uncrossed, and turned “Amazon PR” from a badge of distinction on a résumé into an indelible stain.

I know a lot of folks are rightfully skeptical of “PR” in most cases, and saying that AWS’s folks were somehow different was a sign that I was somehow “too close” to the company.

Maybe that’s true. But I have years of examples and backchannel discussions that PR never knew about to back up the undeniable fact that while there were many times that they didn’t like what I was writing about and hoped I’d change my tone, they never once lied to me in order to achieve that outcome.

It’s not just me

Over the last week, I’ve had conversations with a number of AWS customers who are saying remarkably similar things. Some are asking questions such as “how quickly could we evacuate AWS if we had to do so, and no—we don’t care about contractual commitments in this hypothetical.” They didn’t ask me that question when AWS turned Parler off, and they didn’t ask me that question after CapitalOne’s security breach.

But they’re asking now because—while mistakes can happen and be smoothed over— deliberately lying to customers cannot be undone.

A request for comment sent to AWS PR went unanswered at press time.The only path I see forward is for Amazon to identify the executive who made the tweet and publicly fire him (let’s be clear: we all know it’s a “him”). Anything else is playing fast and loose with customer trust, which—while we might accept that from our underpants merchant—we absolutely cannot accept it from our cloud provider.

Beyond that, I’m afraid the only useful takeaway here is this: I don’t ever want to hear about an AWS employee being told by their manager that their tweets are “unprofessional” ever again.

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