Amazon Turns on the Charm Amid Criticism From Right and Left – New York Times

The company’s more aggressive approach, focused on building relationships with leading politicians and improving the company’s overall reputation, is a break from its past. Before last year, the company relied on a no-frills operation for more than a decade, prodding officials in Washington on narrow laws and regulations and arguing about the nuances of issues like sales taxes and copyright.


Amazon’s banana stand in Washington.

Amazon Banana Stand

The efforts may not directly apply to an imminent bill or regulation, but they allow the company to steer policy conversations that may be important to Amazon in the future. Amazon is hosting events for lawmakers, like the day of events in July, and holding discussions on transportation and labor policies for congressional staff and policy makers at its sleek offices near Capitol Hill. Speaker Paul D. Ryan and other political leaders have visited Amazon’s fulfillment centers in their home districts, where Amazon talks up the thousands of jobs those warehouses support. The company has also put more money into research and advocacy groups in Washington, one of the tried and true ways for big companies to spread their influence.

Amazon’s strategic shift has happened as politicians are getting more bold in their criticism about the size and influence of the country’s big tech companies. Republicans and Democrats alike have focused on issues including antitrust, privacy and public disclosure.

Many of the harshest attacks have been directed at Facebook and Google, which also have robust lobbying arms in Washington. But Amazon has attracted its own set of vocal critics, who say the company’s push into groceries, fashion, transportation and other industries threatens competition. President Trump has lashed out at the company and Jeff Bezos, the company’s chief executive, multiple times, accusing the company of avoiding taxes among other things. The company has said it follows all tax laws and has supported a bill that would force online commerce sites to collect sales taxes.

“The concentration of power in the hands of a few companies has the potential to hurt the economy and consumers in the long run,” said Representative David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat who is the ranking member of the subcommittee that oversees antitrust matters. He raised concerns over Amazon’s $13.4 billion purchase of Whole Foods over the summer, noting that antitrust laws may need an update to account for the power internet companies have over the economy.

“In the short run, there may be lowered costs, but if these entities have a large share of the market, there is a likelihood of increased prices and significant hurdles for small businesses and lower wages and fewer jobs in the long run,” Mr. Cicilline said.


An Amazon office in Seattle. The company had 180,000 full-time employees in the United States at the end of 2016, nearly double its head count five years earlier.

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Amazon, which declined to comment for this article, has said that its online retail business makes up a minority of all commerce and that it is producing tens of thousands of jobs in regions that have long been in decline. The company had 180,000 full-time employees in the United States at the end of 2016, nearly double its head count five years earlier. The company has said those gains help make up for the job losses from struggling brick-and-mortar retailers.

The company has pushed that same jobs argument in direct conversations with White House officials, lawmakers and aides, according to three Senate and House aides who were not authorized to speak about the private meetings.

In the span of a few weeks this summer, Linda McMahon, head of the Small Business Administration, visited Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle, where the company had small retailers on hand to talk about how Amazon had helped their businesses. Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, attended the opening of a new fulfillment center in Edwardsville, Ill. And Senator Rob Portman, a Republican, visited a new fulfillment center in his home state of Ohio.

“Got to meet some of the 3,000+ Ohioans employed at this plant. #Jobs,” Mr. Portman wrote on Twitter at the time.

In addition, the head of Amazon’s lobbying efforts in Washington, Brian Huseman, has spoken on industry panels and published op-ed articles in political trade publications about the company’s focus on jobs and consumers.

“They are doing all this reputation stuff around how it is creating jobs and that’s helped it generate a lot of media attention,” said Stacy Mitchell, co-director of Institute for Local Self Reliance, a nonprofit group that promotes community economic development. Last year, her organization published a paper that argued that the company was making it harder for smaller retailers to make money from selling on Amazon.

Amazon has also decided in recent years to spend more money in the broader influence ecosystem of Washington. In 2016, Amazon gave donations of more than $10,000 each to 66 think tanks, lobbying groups and political organizations. More than a dozen organizations were new to its sponsorship roster, like the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Foundation and the conservative Law & Economic Center at George Mason University.


Jay Carney, left, Amazon’s senior vice president of global corporate affairs, and Brian Huseman, the company’s vice president of public policy.

Larry French/Getty Images for Amazon

Financing Washington’s ecosystem of research and lobbying groups is a common practice for tech companies such as Google and Microsoft, but Amazon had not been as active until recent years. Last month, it donated $50 million to a White House plan to promote computer science in classrooms.

Amazon is racing to catch up. Yet even with similar lobbying armies, Google and Facebook have not been able to avoid criticism — in their cases over the power their platforms have to shape public opinion.

“With Amazon, we need more transparency and need to look at longer term factors when it comes to competition,” Amy Klobuchar, a Democratic Senator from Minnesota said in a recent interview. “The people at the Justice Department in antitrust need to look at deals in other ways.”

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