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Taking the measure of digital giants: Amazon and the Social Welfare Computing research agenda

Abstract

How can and should the IS field best contribute to the Social Welfare Computing research agenda, which seeks to assess unintended consequences and propose better solutions related to the potential harms of digital business practices? In this discussion paper, we take Amazon.com, Inc. as an instance of a giant digital company and examine it structurally as a sociotechnical actor engaging in a broad range of digital features and business practices. The picture that emerges from this analysis (a company engaging in systematically unfair competitive behavior) is quite different from one derived from the IS literature about Amazon as a company (a technologically savvy and strategically successful player). This analysis is provisional and deserves to be reproduced, possibly by reassembling the IS literature on such topics as electronic marketplaces, recommender systems, and online reviews, into a specific profile for each of the digital giants. Regardless, the analysis is this paper suggests the possibility of blindspots in traditional IS research on digital business activities, and it offers some suggestions for future research on the Social Welfare Computing research agenda. In particular, IS scholarship should emphasize corporate actors in addition to isolated technology features and business practices.

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Notes

  1. Many IS publications have featured one or another of Amazon’s business lines as exemplars of business success. To document this as objectively as possible we first looked at the AIS eLibrary. Searches with Amazon in the abstract yielded 30 journal papers, one being irrelevant. Themes notably covered microtask crowdsourcing on Amazon Mechanical Turk (6 papers), cloud computing (2 papers), online reviews (2 papers), and ecommerce (2 papers). We then performed a selective search on the 6 other AIS senior scholar basket of journals, augmented with Information & Organization and Information & Management on Google Scholar to identify important journals examples in terms of citations, appreciation and/or content. We also selected some additional references citing Amazon in the body of text.

  2. Antitrust commissions are public authorities in charge of building and enforcing regulations. They differentiate competition from power abuse, which does not necessarily equate with unethical methods. Three conditions must be met for power abuse: dominant position, abusive exploitation of this position, and a restrictive effect of such exploitation on a market. Likewise, abuse of economic dependency applies to supplier–buyer relationships. In the context of competitive regulations, abusive exploitation of power or dependency are interpreted as unethical. Yet, the other two conditions must be met for regulators to enact sanctions. Accordingly, unfair competitive behavior is not always sanctioned.

  3. For a more detailed examination of Google’s and Amazon’s power over sellers see also (Clemons, 2018).

  4. The arrangement Apple had proposed was to receive a 30% commission from suppliers on books sold in the hope to put pressure on Amazon to adopt the same scheme and stop discounting ebooks (Timchalk, 2014; Khan, 2017, p. 758).

  5. There are situations in which competition can be rationally argued to “[promote] behavioral exploitation, unethical behavior, and misery” (Stücke, 2013, p. 197).

  6. They also examine concerns related to concentration/consolidation and effects of market competitiveness. Typically, albeit to a lesser extent than in the past since the advent of the Chicago School doctrine (Khan, 2017), mergers and acquisitions that increase the Herfindahl index or harm competition have also been blocked.

  7. We also mainly focused on Amazon as an ecommerce giant, ignoring perhaps its most profitable business, Amazon Web Services.

  8. For the earliest example of the latter in the IS literature see Clemons and Weber, BZW Trade (1990).

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Correspondence to Frantz Rowe.

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This article is part of the Topical Collection on Social Welfare Computing: understanding the complex societal impacts of online platforms, minimizing harm, maximizing benefits, and continuing innovation

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Rowe, F., Markus, M.L. Taking the measure of digital giants: Amazon and the Social Welfare Computing research agenda. Electron Markets (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12525-022-00544-0

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12525-022-00544-0

Keywords

  • Social Welfare Computing
  • Digital giants
  • Competition
  • Regulation and regulators
  • Industry structure analysis
  • Sociotechnical analysis

JEL Classification

  • L4
  • O33