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How Amazon is growing its power during the pandemic

There’s a lot of discussion going on right now about what will be forever changed by the pandemic. Over at Amazon, though, the company is promising that things are going back to normal.

For one, the company said on Tuesday that delivery times — which have understandably stretched from days to weeks amid the huge logistical challenges posed by COVID-19 — were about to get shorter. Here’s Spencer Soper in Bloomberg:

The company on Sunday lifted restrictions on the amount of inventory its suppliers can send to Amazon warehouses and is shortening delivery times — which had stretched for weeks for some products since the outbreak began — back to days. The shares rose 2.1% to $2,406 at 10:42 a.m. on Wednesday. […]

“We removed quantity limits on products our suppliers can send to our fulfillment centers,” Amazon spokeswoman Kristen Kish said in an email. “We continue to adhere to extensive health and safety measures to protect our associates as they pick, pack and ship products to customers, and are improving delivery speeds across our store.”

Among other things, improving delivery times is an important matter of reputation for Amazon. “Shoppers left 800,000 negative reviews on Amazon’s shopping site in April, double the number in the same month a year ago, with much of the increase attributable to longer delivery times,” Soper writes. That has created an opening for its rivals, including Shopify, Target, and Costco, which have all grown faster in the past two months than Amazon has, according to a separate report in Bloomberg last week.

Unfortunately for workers, getting back to normal has a significant downside — one that goes beyond having lots more boxes to pack and deliver on one- and two-day deadlines. After increasing warehouse workers’ pay in recognition of the increased risks they faced by simply coming in to do their jobs — and routinely calling them “heroes” in public communications — Amazon said Wednesday that their $2 per hour hazard pay would go away in June. Jason del Rey broke the news at Recode:

Asked why the pay bump won’t continue into June, an Amazon spokesperson did not answer the question directly.

“This appreciation and pay incentive enabled us to deliver essential items to communities during these unprecedented times,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “We are grateful to associates supporting customers during a time of increased demand, and are returning to our regular pay and overtime wages at the end of the month.”

If the hazards that come with working in confined spaces are expected to disappear in June, it’s news to me. More than 130 workers are believed to have been infected in outbreaks at Amazon facilities to date — the company won’t disclose the actual number — and at least one has died. And local governments are planning for much longer periods of lockdown. Just yesterday, Los Angeles county said stay-at-home orders would likely continue through August, albeit with some restrictions lifted.

But if Amazon is eager to get back to normal, states attorney general are more skeptical. Here’s Chris Dolmetsch at Bloomberg:

Amazon.com is being asked by several U.S. states to provide information about health and safety measures following the death of a number of workers from coronavirus-related illnesses.

Led by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, 13 states on Tuesday sent a letter to the company expressing concern about recent media reports of “inadequate safety measures and sick leave policies, insufficient data about infections and deaths among their workers, and retaliation against workers who call attention to unsafe workplace conditions.”

The prospect of a fight with states over labor issues comes in addition to similar questions the company has faced in France, where courts required it to close warehouses last month amid complaints the company had not done enough to protect workers. Questions like these don’t seem to be going away — even if they don’t seem to have slowed down Amazon very much so far.

Is there anything Amazon would like to change amid the pandemic? Well yes, actually: it would like to be exempt from lawsuits over price gouging. Here’s Chaim Gartenberg at The Verge:

Amazon has requested that Congress pass a law that would make price gouging illegal during times of national crisis, in light of inflated prices on crucial goods like hand sanitizer and N95 masks that have hounded the online retailer during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an open letter posted by Brian Huseman, Amazon’s VP of public policy, the company highlights its own ongoing efforts to try to crack down on price gouging. To date, Amazon says that it’s removed half a million price-gouged listings from its online stores and has banned 4,000 seller accounts on its US store alone for violating its Fair Pricing Policy. And as CEO Jeff Bezos noted in a letter to investors, Amazon has set up a special line of communication for state attorneys general to directly pass along price gouging complaints. […]

Unsurprisingly, Amazon’s proposed legislation would ensure that only the party that sets the price — like, say, a bad third-party Amazon retailer — be held liable for the inflated price, not the storefront (i.e. Amazon) that hosts that seller and facilitates the sale.

An emerging theme of this newsletter during the pandemic is that at the same time tech companies are legitimately working to hold society together, they’re simultaneously finding new opportunities to entrench their power — and unwind the criticisms that they have grown too large and must be broken up.

Amazon is the least worried about optics of any big tech company, and in all its big, clumsy moves over the past week, you can see exactly how it believes all of this is going to play out: with Amazon on top and its workers resigned to taking what they can get. And if it succeeds, the new normal will look a lot like the old one.

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.

Trending down: TikTok is full of dangerous coronavirus conspiracy theories despite the company’s pledge to curb misinformation on the platform. Some of the videos have racked up hundreds of thousands of views. (EJ Dickson / Rolling Stone)

Total cases in the US: More than 1,379,300

Total deaths in the US: At least 82,400

Reported cases in California: 71,171

Total test results (positive and negative) in California: 1,033,370

Reported cases in New York: 343,705

Total test results (positive and negative) in New York: 1,225,113

Reported cases in New Jersey: 140,743

Total test results (positive and negative) in New Jersey: 433,060

Reported cases in Illinois: 83,168

Total test results (positive and negative) in Illinois: 471,691

Data from The New York Times. Test data from The COVID Tracking Project.

Social media is already filling up with misinformation about a COVID-19 vaccine, months or years before one even exists. This is the beginning of a long conflict to come. Kevin Roose at The New York Times tells us why this is so dangerous:

I’ve been following the anti-vaccine community on and off for years, watching its members operate in private Facebook groups and Instagram accounts, and have found that they are much more organized and strategic than many of their critics believe. They are savvy media manipulators, effective communicators and experienced at exploiting the weaknesses of social media platforms. (Just one example: Shortly after Facebook and YouTube began taking down copies of “Plandemic” for violating their rules, I saw people in anti-vaccine groups editing it in subtle ways to evade the platforms’ automated enforcement software and reposting it.)

In short, the anti-vaxxers have been practicing for this. And I’m worried that they will be unusually effective in sowing doubts about a Covid-19 vaccine for several reasons.

The Trump campaign is embracing Snapchat in an effort to reach younger voters. While the app’s clout in political conversation is small, millennial and Gen-Z voters make up 35 percent of the US electorate, and Snapchat reaches 75 percent of them every day. (Sarah Frier / Bloomberg)

The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI are blaming hackers linked with the Chinese government for attempting to steal US research into a coronavirus vaccine. The news is an escalation of the ongoing fight between the two counties over the coronavirus crisis. (Sean Lyngaas / CyberScoop)

Washington already has a team of nearly 1,400 trained contact-tracers who are beginning to contact each new person who tests positive for the novel coronavirus. It’s part of the state’s three-pronged approach to locking down the virus: broad-based testing, isolation and contact tracing. And it’s good to see more states investing in this essential job. (David Gutman / The Seattle Times)

India’s contact-tracing app, called Aarogya Setu, has reached 100 million users just 41 days after its release. The numbers indicate the app is quickly gaining traction despite being dogged by privacy concerns. (Manish Singh / TechCrunch)

But a hacker broke down India’s contact tracing app to make it less invasive. “I didn’t like the fact that installing this app is slowly becoming mandatory in India,” he said. (Pranav Dixit / BuzzFeed)

COVID-19 targets the elderly. Why don’t our prevention efforts? (David Wallace-Wells / New York)

Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter to the Treasury Department calling for a ban on any mergers by companies that received pandemic relief. For weeks, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) have been pushing for a general moratorium on mergers until the crisis ends. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)

Democratic lawmakers proposed a new law to make it illegal for telecom providers to end internet or phone service during the COVID-19 pandemic. Separately, House Democrats also unveiled a $3 trillion relief package that includes at least $4 billion for an “emergency broadband connectivity fund.” (Jon Brodkin / Ars Technica)

A new nonprofit called VoteAmerica is trying to boost voter turnout by helping people vote by mail in the November election. The organization was founded by Debra Cleaver, who previously started the nonpartisan voter mobilization site Vote.org. (Taylor Hatmaker / TechCrunch)

President Trump is turning Elon Musk into a crony capitalist. Staying in the president’s good graces is crucial to Musk’s success, this piece argues. (Russell Brandom / The Verge)

France voted to force social media platforms to take down child exploitation and terrorism-related content within the hour or face a fine of up to 4 percent of their global revenue. For other “manifestly illicit” content, companies like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat will have 24 hours to remove it. (Reuters)

The coronavirus pandemic proves we need a “superfund” to clean up misinformation on the internet, argues this expert. Can we treat the web as a toxic waste site? (Lisa Macpherson / Public Knowledge)

Google significantly rolled back its diversity and inclusion programs in an apparent effort to avoid being perceived as anti-conservative, according to current and former employees. The news comes days after Google settled with James Damore, the former Google engineer who sued over allegedly discriminating against conservative white men. Here’s April Glaser at NBC:

One well-liked diversity training program at Google called Sojourn, a comprehensive racial justice program created for employees to learn about implicit bias and how to navigate conversations about race and inequality, was cut entirely, according to seven former and current employees. Sojourn offered its last training to Google workers in 2018, four current employees said, and by 2019 it was cut completely.

Seven current and former employees from across a range of teams and roles at the company said separately that they all believed the reason behind cutting Sojourn and taking employees off diversity projects to move them elsewhere at Google was to shield the company from backlash from conservatives.

Apple is going to start having more employees return to its major global offices. The move stands in sharp contrast to other big tech companies that are expending work home home policies. (Mark Gurman / Bloomberg)

We finally have numbers to back up the wild view counts we’ve seen in live-streaming since the COVID-19 pandemic began — and they’re huge. The sector grew a full 45 percent between March and April. Year over year, the industry is up by 99 percent. (Bijan Stephen / The Verge)

Uber rolled out a series of new health policies to adapt its ride-hailing and delivery businesses to a world changed by COVID-19. Only three passengers will be allowed in a vehicle at one time, and drivers will be required to take selfies to prove they are wearing masks. (Andrew J. Hawkins / The Verge)

Facebook is rolling out its customizable avatars in the US after first launching them internationally last year. Like Bitmoji or Apple’s Memoji, avatars offer a way to express yourself through a virtual lookalike (though no one actually looks like their avatar). (Chris Welch / The Verge)

A Facebook group where people pretend to be ants in an ant colony has grown from 100,000 members to more than 1.7 million. Ok then! (Jareen Imam / NBC)

Twitter acquired the mobile ad company CrossInstall for an undisclosed amount. The news comes as the ad market continues to decline due to economic hardships associated with the coronavirus pandemic. (Allison Schiff / AdExchanger)

Twitter is making it easier to see quote tweets on iOS. The new feature organizes all of the retweets with comments into a handy list. (Jay Peters / The Verge)

Loon, the Alphabet-owned company that’s using stratospheric balloons to get high-speed internet in hard to reach areas, signed a new deal with Vodacom to expand its offering in Africa to Mozambique. (Darrell Etherington / TechCrunch)

People who’ve lost family members to the QAnon conspiracy theory are turning to Reddit to commiserate with other survivors. The convoluted theory alleges President Trump is leading a secret fight to take down the deep state and its hordes of pedophiles. (Mike Rothschild / Daily Dot)

YouTube creator James Charles is teaching wannabe influencers how to film believable apology videos — a staple of YouTube culture. (Julia Alexander / The Verge)

Clubhouse, a new invite-only audio-based social app that venture capitalists and celebrities have flocked to in recent weeks, is fielding multiple investment offers. The company behind the app, Alpha Exploration, already raised at least $1 million in seed funding in February. (Kate Clark, Alex Heath and Zoë Bernard / The Information)

This is why Zoom is so exhausting. (Christina Cauterucci / Slate)

Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.

The only thing I can think about doing today is going to this restaurant.

To comply with social distancing guidelines, luxury restaurant in northern Virginia will have 1940s-era mannequins occupying 50 percent of the tables. https://t.co/ahl3J7ukUP pic.twitter.com/7VzWHHIn8Q

But I also highly recommend Jerry Saltz’s beautiful and humane essay about food, art, and love — over the course of this singular life, and during quarantine.

Nextdoor conversations about covid are like listening to a hundred 6th graders talk about sex

This is what people meant when they said great art would come out of the hardship of the pandemic pic.twitter.com/TUoUaR6Fjx

Every single bad decision you make right now is self care ✨

Send us tips, comments, questions, and weirdly expensive items on Amazon: casey@theverge.com and zoe@theverge.com.

This Article was first published on theverge.com

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