Social media companies like YouTube and Twitter have typically faced the brunt of lawmakers’ backlash over misinformation online, but congressional Democrats are now dialing up scrutiny of Amazon on how it may amplify misleading information about coronavirus vaccines. 

The trend follows a series of reports that Amazon’s recommended products boost falsehoods about the vaccines, that bad actors exploited its systems to encourage medical conspiracy theories and that its reviews pushed unproven cures despite federal warnings.

In a new letter shared exclusively with the Technology 202, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) accused Amazon of “directly profiting from the sensationalism of anti-vaccine misinformation.” And he pressed CEO Andy Jassy for answers about the company’s policies and enforcement against such material, which Schiff called “unacceptable.” 

“Recent investigations indicate that Amazon’s algorithms are boosting anti-vaccine products throughout the site over fact-based vaccine information and pushing customers towards content bubbles of extreme disinformation,” Schiff, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, wrote Wednesday.

The missive arrives after a separate investigation conducted by the staff of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) found that Amazon’s search and recommendation algorithms consistently surfaced false or misleading information about the vaccines during an August trial.

The surging attention marks a new battlefront for the e-commerce giant, which has faced allegations it stifles competition and mistreats workers, but has largely avoided questions about misinformation on its site. 

Amazon executives, including then-CEO Jeff Bezos, have been repeatedly hauled in to testify before Congress about allegations the tech giant is a monopoly. But it is the leaders at Facebook, YouTube parent-company Google and Twitter that have been called on to answer for concerns about misinformation. (Bezos, who founded Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)

Schiff, who first pressed Amazon about its handling of anti-vax material in March 2019 — months before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, said in an interview Wednesday that Amazon’s role in amplifying false medical information deserves greater scrutiny. 

“I think many are perhaps not as aware of the extraordinary degree that they also influence the public debate by what they promote, and in the area of vaccine misinformation, I think they're one of the most important players,” he said.

Schiff said that while Amazon’s massive digital storefront may function differently from social media sites like Facebook and YouTube, it faces an “analogous set of challenges” on misinformation by making decisions on what materials to surface and promote.

“They are a different business model but have many of the same failings in terms of misinformation, and we need to start thinking about them differently given their role in the information marketplace,” said Schiff, who also penned another letter pressing Facebook over its own handling of coronavirus misinformation this week.

In response to the letter, Amazon spokesperson Alex Haurek said in a statement, “We are constantly evaluating the books we list to ensure they comply with our content guidelines, and as an additional service to customers, at the top of relevant search results pages we link to the CDC advice on COVID and protection measures.”

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement that the company has removed 20 million pieces of content containing covid-19 misinformation since the pandemic began and “will continue to enforce our policies and offer tools and reminders for people who use our platform to get vaccinated.”

Renée DiResta, a researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory, said Amazon serves not only as an online storefront, but also as a “product search engine” for books and other informational items. And bad actors have found ways to “game the distribution” of that search engine to promote false and misleading information, including on vaccines, she said.

“If you go and you search … for content related to covid, you're going to find it classified in like [the] science textbooks [category]. People who are writing just absolute B.S. are classifying their stuff as if it is scientifically authoritative in some way,” she said.

“And Amazon does absolutely nothing to put a stop to that,” she added, calling the tech giant’s approach “entirely hands off.” 

Amazon’s recommendation algorithms also exacerbate the issue by promoting more and more quack science to consumers who engage with misleading products online, she said.

DiResta said Amazon has gotten “sporadic” but not “sustained” attention as a potential hub for misinformation, due in part to how hard it is to study how materials spread on its site.

“Since recommendation engines and suggestions and ratings are so personalized, it's very hard to study some of these dynamics of how recommenders work,” she said.

Schiff is hoping to get answers on some of those fronts. His letter calls on the company to explain how it identifies “abuse” of its categorizations, and how it decides which products to award recommendations such as its “Amazon’s Choice” labels to.

But Schiff said in an interview that legislative remedies must also be on the table. One option he said lawmakers must consider is whether to limit the liability protections that shield digital services from lawsuits for hosting user content, known as Section 230. 

“My initial inclination is to explore narrowing Section 230 and creating a safe harbor only if companies use best practices,” he said. “And in the case of the social media companies, move away from amplifying for engagement with all the societal harm that that has caused.”

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Federal regulators revealed for the first time the data they are using to argue Facebook is a monopoly.

The data used by the Federal Trade Commission in its antitrust lawsuit against the tech giant, which was previously redacted, showed that Facebook's share of time spent by users on social media apps in the U.S. averaged 92% per month from September 2012 to December 2020, Bloomberg's David McLaughlin reports.

The information is meant to show that Facebook is by far the most dominant company in the market. The combined shares of other apps, such as Snapchat, Google+ and MeWe, didn’t rise above 18% during any month in that stretch. A federal judge initially dismissed the FTC's case in June, but the agency refiled in August.

The FTC will discuss under-the-radar tech deals next week. 

The Federal Trade Commission will discuss the findings of a study of Big Tech’s small acquisitions, including an “analysis of the structure of deals that customarily fly under enforcers’ radar,” the commission saidThe Sept. 15 meeting comes 19 months after the FTC demanded acquisition information from Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft as part of a review of past acquisitions they didn’t report to regulators. 

The meeting is set to take place Sept. 15, exactly three months after President Biden named Big Tech critic Lina Khan as chair of the five-member commission. 

Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes went on trial. 

Holmes faces charges of defrauding investors and patients by misleading them about the company’s blood-testing technology, Rachel Lerman reports. Prosecutors opened the trial in California by alleging that Holmes knew what she was doing. Her lawyers portrayed her as a hard worker who made mistakes but is innocent. 

High-profile witnesses like former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch and former secretary of defense Jim Mattis could testify. Kissinger and Mattis, a retired general, were both on Theranos’ board, and Murdoch was a Holmes supporter. 

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Three Elizabeth Holmes fans apparently showed up at her trial. Axios' Lachlan Markay:

Journalist Dave Levitan:

BuzzFeed News's Tasneem Nashrulla:

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  • UK Innovate at the University of Kentucky, Columbia Technology Ventures, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and AUTM host the U.S. Innovation Competitiveness Summit, which begins Sept. 13. 
  • The Stanford Internet Observatory hosts an event on end-to-end encryption proposals at noon on Sept. 14. 
  • Bruno Lasserre, the Chief Justice and Vice President of France’s Council of State, discusses online privacy policy at an Atlantic Council event on Sept. 15 at 9:15 a.m. 
  • New America’s Open Technology Institute holds an event on high-risk AI on Sept. 15 at 1:30 p.m. 

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