Amazon, its cloud has a transparency problem

Amazon, its cloud has a transparency problem


Amazon Marketing reports that more than 7,500 government agencies worldwide use its cloud computing service, AWS. However, some investors fear that the contracts also include projects that violate human rights with the help of the company's technology.

In mid-December, the nonprofit American Baptist Home Mission Societies filed a document in which calls on Amazon shareholders to force the company to investigate possible human rights violations by government customers. The group is a member of Investor Advocates for Social Justice, another nonprofit that uses shareholder rights to push for changes in corporate governance. The proposal is supported by the Athena coalition, a collective of 50 digital and human rights organizations, and will be put to a vote at Amazon's annual meeting next year.

Between strategy and change

The resolution argues that companies should conduct due diligence on the human rights impact of their customers or supply chain, similar to how they might evaluate aspects such as environmental impact or privacy. "Amazon's existing policies appear insufficient to prevent customer misuse and establish effective oversight, yet Amazon continues to release surveillance products," the proposal reads. Amazon did not immediately respond to a US request for comment.

Shareholder resolutions are often used more as a promotional tactic than a method of getting the votes needed to force corporate change, but there's reason to think Athena's proposal could garner significant support. In 2020, a similar resolution received about 30 percent of the shareholder vote; in 2021, another version garnered more than 40 percent support. Resolutions requiring reports on Amazon's lobbying and warehouse working conditions also moved closer to the majority required for approval at the 2022 shareholders' meeting.

If passed, the resolution would oblige Amazon's board of directors to commission an independent assessment on the impact on human rights of some customers with controversial precedents, such as the Israeli armed forces and Immigration and customs enforcement, the US agency that deals with border security and immigration control.

Excellent cases

One of the projects mentioned in the resolution is Hart, a database of biographical and biometric information of the United States Department of Homeland Security hosted on Aws, which includes information on 270 million people, including minors. A report released in May by Just futures law found that Hart helps federal authorities target immigrants. The same month, more than 40 civil rights organizations wrote to AWS CEO Adam Selipsky asking the company to drop the project, saying Hart would "strengthen surveillance and deportations" and increase the risk of human rights violations. human.

The shareholder proposal also calls for the reevaluation of a $1.2 billion contract with the government of Israel, shared with Google. According to documents released by Intercept , the two companies provide the country with cloud and artificial intelligence (Ai) services.

Some Amazon and Google employees protested outside the company's offices and signed letters claiming that the Israeli army uses Amazon and Google technology against the Palestinian population, favoring policies that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International describe as apartheid. A Google employee, Ariel Koren, has resigned, saying she faced retaliation from executives for her opposition to the contract.

The proposed shareholder resolution also underlines Amazon's relationship with the UAE United States, which notoriously target human rights activists, journalists and political dissidents.

Not just Amazon

Among the supporters of the new resolution is the religiously inspired organization Investor advocates for social justice. Founded forty years ago as the Tri-state coalition of responsible investors, the group's first action was a campaign against apartheid in South Africa, which involved boycotting companies such as American Express, IBM and Shell. The resolution involving Amazon aims to hit the apartheid-like systems still in place today, says the group's executive director, Courtney Wicks.

“You have to ask yourself what Amazon and the entire technology sector are doing – he explains wicks –; they make all these human rights commitments, but at the heart of their business plan is selling products to customers with a history of human rights violations.” Wicks would like Amazon to introduce a screening process to look at potential government customers and reject contracts that could contribute to human rights violations.

If Amazon's shareholders were to approve the termination, the company would join other companies that have come under pressure from shareholders to lend more attention to the potential uses of their products.

Last year, pressure from investors led Microsoft to conduct a human rights impact assessment of government contracts that – according to what was told to US by Michelle Micor, spokesperson for the company – should be published in early 2023.

Not always, however, designate certain business practices as taboo changes the path of a company. Following protests over an AI technology procurement with the US Department of Defense, Google adopted AI Ethics Principles in 2018 that prohibit the company from working on weapons or technologies that are contrary to “widely accepted principles in the area of ​​international law and human rights”. Since then, however, the company has increased defense activities both in the United States and elsewhere, as evidenced by the contract with Israel. A Google spokesperson told US this year that, while "not directed at highly sensitive or confidential military activities," the deal supplies Google technology to the Israeli military.

What impact?

Even external assessments of a company's human rights impact, such as those suggested for Amazon, can be insufficient . Facebook, for example, commissioned an independent study into the platform's possible role in the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, but a Harvard review last year found that the report did not adequately assess the significant role of the company's products.

The Harvard review warned that a relatively new tool such as human rights impact assessments risks being used as "ethics washing" - a morality facade - by companies seeking to escape the own responsibilities. To be effective, these assessments must be made on an ongoing basis, following an initial baseline assessment. While no date has yet been set, Amazon's next annual meeting of shareholders should be held in spring 2023 . Michael Pachter, managing director of equity research at Wedbush securities, says it's unusual for outside shareholder pitches to succeed. But Pachter is convinced that Amazon shareholders today are more interested in environmental, social and governance issues than in the past and believes that the resolution has a 50 percent chance of passing.

“I don't see any real impediment to vote in favour, nor do I see a strong reaction from Amazon's management – ​​explains Pachter -. While they may recommend not approving the proposal, they will need to take the matter seriously.”

This content originally appeared on US.

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