On Tuesday, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos announced he would be ascending to the role of executive chairman of the Amazon board. To succeed him, he tapped Andy Jassy, the creator and head of Amazon Web Services.
The part of the company Jassy currently oversees is Amazon’s main source of profits—a cloud-computing business that, for years, has pulled in huge revenues by hosting computer servers for vast swaths of the digital economy including start-ups and large corporations, but also various government agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency. AWS has not only played a key role in helping Amazon disregard antitrust law, but in attracting then crushing competitors. During Jassy’s tenure, AWS became the “invisible backbone” of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and has doubled down on cloud contracts with the agency despite over two years of internal and external protests.
As head of this division and future head of Amazon as Bezos steps out of the media limelight, it’s important to consider what Jassy thinks about ongoing issues he’ll face as CEO. Across the board, from antitrust, to fossil fuels, to facial recognition, to killer robots, Jassy’s track record is concerning.
On the antitrust question, Jassy has for years rejected the notion that AWS should be spun off; he literally laughed off the question in an interview with CNBC. In a House antitrust report, lawmakers found that the AWS division was creating “knock-offs” of open source products. In December 2019, a Federal Trade Commission antitrust probe of Amazon was expanded to scrutinize AWS and investigate a host of issues, including whether Amazon discriminated against companies based on whether they offered AWS alternatives.
Jassy has also spent the past few years defending and expanding Amazon’s facial recognition technology since the creation of its Rekognition software in 2016. AWS’ Rekognition was marketed as being able to “detect fear” despite regularly misidentifying Black or brown lawmakers as people arrested for crimes. In a 2019 interview with Recode, he compared facial recognition technology to a knife and insisted that “just because tech could be misused doesn’t mean we should ban it and condemn it.”
In a PBS Frontline documentary released February 2020, Jassy again insisted that it was premature to raise concerns about facial recognition technology and claimed there was no evidence it had led to any abuse or misuse. "We don't have a large number of police departments that are using our facial recognition technology and as I said we've never received any complaints of misuse. Let's see if somehow they abuse the technology—they haven't done that,” Jassy said. “And to assume they're going to do that and therefore you shouldn't allow them to have access to the most sophisticated technology out there doesn't feel like the right balance to me.”
In October 2020, after years of studies showing racial bias and potential for abuse, Amazon announced a one-year moratorium on letting police departments use Rekognition and calling on Congress to pass legislation to regulate it. At the same time, the company has tried to kill the strongest facial recognition technology ban to date in Portland.
Jassy is also a commissioner on the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, an independent panel created in 2018 by the National Defense Authorization Act to consider technological developments necessary to "comprehensively address the national security and defense needs of the United States." Led by Eric Schmidt, former CEO and executive chairman of Google, in January this year the panel submitted a report to Congress that argued there was a "moral imperative" to pursue the development and use of weapons incorporating artificial intelligence technology.
Under Jassy's tenure at AWS, the company has also massively expanded its cloud computing contracts with the fossil fuel industry even as the company insisted it was reducing its massive contribution to climate change. This new "carbon cloud" industry is incredibly lucrative, helping fossil fuel companies extract and emit as much as possible before their assets become stranded—made worthless—by global emissions targets or regulations, all while helping technology firms pad their bottom line and further develop their products.
As Brian Merchant reported for Gizmodo, Jassy has come out strongly in favor of developing this carbon cloud. At one of the oil industry's largest events in 2019, he talked about how "a lot of the things that we have built and released recently have been very much informed by conversations with our oil and gas customers and partners" who included prestigious names like "Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips, and Halliburton."
Jassy himself admitted that AWS allowed fossil fuel companies to extract in ways they never could before, calling it a “game changer.”
"If you look at what Shell's doing, they're taking all these images and well logs, and cleansing the data and tagging the data and then trying to use machine learning and building algorithms that assess what are the characteristics and the patterns that leads to success wells versus ones that are less successful with the goal ultimately to be able to use machine learning and AI 100% to target which wells to go pursue,” he said. “That is heady stuff. That is a very different model than has existed in the past. That is a game changer."
On these important fronts, there is already much to be concerned with by Jassy’s promotion. It is hard to imagine he will be that much better than Bezos in other arenas like the struggles of warehouse, grocery, and delivery workers for dignified working conditions and livable wages. Considering that he was the head of AWS when it fought to build a $10 billion “war cloud” for the Pentagon, it is hard to imagine he will be better on the question of military contracts either.
All in all, it seems like Jassy in the role of CEO is less likely to bring about a change in Amazon than to amplify its most aggressive recent tendencies.