The Technology 202: Democrats tackling economic inequality target Amazon and other tech giants

Warehouse employees who have been working around the clock to ensure that packages arrive quickly say the company isn’t doing enough to ensure profits are improving their conditions or wages. And today they’ll have the opportunity to air those concerns on Capitol Hill. 

Jennifer Bates, who trains employees at the Alabama warehouse and supports unionization efforts, will testify before the Senate Budget Committee. She is expected to tell senators that working in Amazon warehouses is grueling, and the company needs to invest more of the massive profits it’s amassing toward treating these workers with greater dignity. 

“We, the workers, made the billions for Amazon,” Bates will say at today’s hearing, according to prepared testimony obtained by The Technology 202. “I often say, we are the billionaires — we just don’t get to spend it.”

(Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The meteoric growth of tech giants is staggeringly at odds with the struggles many Americans have faced during the pandemic. 

While many Americans lost jobs and struggled to pay bills, tech titans’ wealth soared to new heights as they profited off the shift to virtual school, work and shopping. That’s creating greater urgency for liberal Democrats to follow through on long-running efforts to raise taxes on tech titans and pursue antitrust action against their businesses. 

“There is no doubt that big-tech billionaires and the companies they own have endangered our democracy and control far too much of our economic and political life,” Sanders recently told my colleagues Jay Greene and Nitasha Tiku. “The time has come to tax their wealth and break up tech giants and other huge conglomerates that have monopolized nearly every sector of our economy.”

The wealth of nine of the country’s top titans increased by more than $360 billion in the past year, according to an analysis by Jay and Nitasha. And all are tech moguls, underscoring how much the industry has benefited from lockdowns and other limits on in-person gatherings. 

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has become a particular lightning rod for critics concerned about how the industry is perpetuating economic inequality.

During the pandemic, his personal wealth increased by $58 billion to $176.6 billion. Yet at the same time, workers around the world staffing his warehouses sounded the alarm that the company was not doing enough to ensure they didn’t contract covid-19. 

Sanders invited Bezos to testify at today’s hearing, but he declined to appear. 

“Bezos has become a symbol of the unfettered capitalism that we are living under right now, when the very, very rich are doing phenomenally well while ordinary working people are struggling to put food on the table,” Sanders told Jay in a recent interview.

Other witnesses at today’s hearing include Robert B. Reich, a former Bill Clinton economic aide who has called for greater taxation of tech titans. From Twitter: 

Today’s hearing is also expected to focus on Amazon’s efforts to thwart a union in Bessemer. 

The company is concerned the labor fight in Alabama could be just the beginning of a greater push to organize Amazon warehouses nationally. Workers hope this will give them greater leverage to negotiate over the companies’ work expectations, as well as push to resume the $2-an-hour bonus the company distributed at the start of the pandemic but eliminated at the end of May. 

Amazon has said it offers Bessemer workers ample benefits, as well as a starting pay of $15.30 an hour, above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. The company has said it supports Sanders’efforts to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour for all workers. 

But expect Democrats, especially Sanders, to give a boost to the organizing employees at today’s hearing. Even more moderate Democrats, including President Joe Biden, have expressed support for their unionization efforts. 

“What you are seeing right now in Bessemer is an example of the richest person in this country spending a whole lot of money to make it harder for ordinary working people to live with dignity and safety,” Sanders recently told Jay. 

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Parler rallied its employees as a Republican megadonor took a visible role within the company.

Rebekah Mercer is taking a more active role within the right-wing social media network as it works to relaunch itself, according to a leaked recording of company meetings obtained by Bloomberg News‘s William Turton. The recordings also provide insight into the internal dynamics at the company, which has grappled with content moderation and violent rhetoric.

Interim CEO Mark Meckler called employees “warriors” in a “war” against tyranny and threats to free speech. In one recording, a Parler investor said other social media companies played a bigger role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Prominent lawmakers have called for the FBI to investigate the social media network’s role in the siege.

Uber says it will grant U.K. drivers benefits after a landmark court ruling.

The move marks a major shift for the company, which has sought to designate its drivers as “independent contractors,” Faiz Siddiqui reports. It comes nearly a month after Britain’s Supreme Court ruled that the drivers are “workers” and entitled to legal protections and benefits such as a minimum wage.

But the company said it would only give drivers the minimum wage once they have accepted a ride. Uber said it hoped the move would be followed by other gig companies. But potential litigation still looms for the company, which said the changes did not apply to its UberEats delivery drivers.

A Florida teenager pleaded guilty to hacking prominent Twitter accounts last year.

Authorities said Graham Ivan Clark, now 18, masterminded the July 2020 hack of accounts including then-presidential candidate Joe Biden and former president Barack Obama, Rachel Lerman reports. Clark was one of three people charged in the wake of the incident. He will serve three years in a juvenile facility, followed by three years of probation, as a result of pleading guilty.

Twitter said last year that the high-profile incident occurred after hackers successfully targeted Twitter employees who had access to internal tools. The company’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, apologized for the hack.

Google says it will reduce many app store commission fees after Apple reduced its cut under public pressure. 

Google said that starting in July, it would take 15 percent of the first $1 million developers make in revenue in apps, down from 30 percent. Google will still charge 30 percent once revenue surpasses $1 million, the New York Times’s Jack Nicas reports.

Google’s move follows a decision by Apple to halve its commissions last year. The companies want to assuage criticism of the companies’ respective fees and app stores, which app developers say are high because the companies control the marketplace and are an area of intense antitrust scrutiny. 

The change will be effective July 1, Google executive Sameer Samat said in a statement. Because it applies to the first $1 million in revenue by developers in a given year, Samat said, 99 percent of developers will see the commissions get cut.

Rant and rave

Google’s announcement that it would lower its app store commissions drew a mix of reactions. Social media activist group Sleeping Giants:

Epic Games founder and CEO Tim Sweeney:

Robert Zubek, the founder of the SomaSim game studio, pointed out the impact it will have on small developers:

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Former deputy assistant attorney general Alex Okuliar has joined Morrison & Foerster, where he will be co-chair of the firm’s Global Antitrust Practice Group.

Daybook

  • Jennifer Bates, who works at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama that is attempting to unionize, testifies at a Senate Budget Committee hearing today at 11 a.m.
  • Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, speaks at an event on universal broadband hosted by the Internet Innovation Alliance today at 2:30 p.m.
  • Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) speak at a 5G event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Thursday at 10 a.m.
  • European antitrust official Thomas Kramler, Facebook director for economic policy Phillip Malloch and European lawmaker Andreas Schwab speak at an event hosted by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation on Thursday at 10 a.m. The event will focus on Europe’s Digital Markets Act.
  • A House Judiciary Committee panel holds an antitrust hearing on Thursday at 2 p.m.
  • Wikimedia Foundation CEO and executive director Katherine Maher speaks at an event hosted by the Center for Global Development on Thursday at 3 p.m.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee holds a hearing on infrastructure legislation on March 22 at 11 a.m.
  • District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals judge Douglas Ginsburg speaks at a NetChoice event on antitrust and the Consumer Welfare Standard on March 22 at noon.

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