Amazon’s marketing material boasts that more than 7,500 government agencies worldwide use its cloud computing service AWS. Some of its investors fear those contracts include projects that see the company’s technology contribute to human rights violations.
Today nonprofit American Baptist Home Mission Societies filed a proposal asking Amazon shareholders to force the company to investigate possible human rights violations by government clients. The group is a member of Investor Advocates for Social Justice, which uses shareholder rights to campaign for changes to corporate governance. The proposal is supported by the Athena Coalition, a collective of 50 organizations working on digital and human rights, and will be put to a vote at Amazon’s annual meeting next year.
The resolution argues that companies should perform due diligence on the human rights implications of their clientele or supply chain, just as they might evaluate things like environmental impact or privacy. “Amazon’s existing policies appear insufficient in preventing customer misuse and establishing effective oversight, yet Amazon continues releasing surveillance products,” the proposed resolution reads. Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Shareholder resolutions are often launched more as a publicity tactic than in hopes of winning the votes needed to force corporate change, but there is reason to think Athena’s proposal could win significant backing. In 2020, a similar resolution received roughly 30 percent of shareholder votes; in 2021, a version won more than 40 percent of shareholder support. Resolutions calling for reports about Amazon lobbying activity and warehouse working conditions also received votes nearing the majority necessary for passage at the 2022 shareholder meeting.
If passed, the resolution would require Amazon’s board to commission an independent human-rights impact assessment of certain clients with questionable human rights records, such as the Israeli military and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
One project called out in the resolution is HART, a database of biographical and biometric information AWS hosts for the US Department of Homeland Security that includes information on 270 million people, including juveniles. A report released in May by Just Futures Law, a legal campaign group led by women of color, found that HART assists federal authorities in targeting 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 will “supercharge surveillance and deportations” and increase the risk of human rights violations.
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The shareholder proposal also calls for a reassessment of a $1.2 billion contract with the government of Israel, shared with competitor Google. The companies provide cloud and AI services like face detection and sentiment analysis, according to documents released by the Intercept.
Some Amazon and Google employees have protested outside company offices and signed letters asserting that this allows the Israeli military to use Amazon and Google technology against Palestinian people, aiding policies that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International describe as apartheid. One Google employee, Ariel Koren, resigned, saying she faced retaliation from managers over her objection to the contract.
The proposed shareholder resolution also highlights Amazon’s relationship with the United Arab Emirates, which has been documented as targeting human rights defenders, journalists, and political dissidents.
One group supporting the new resolution is the faith-based organization Investor Advocates for Social Justice. Founded 40 years ago as the Tri-State Coalition of Responsible Investors, the group’s first action was to campaign against apartheid in South Africa by boycotting and encouraging divestment from companies like American Express, IBM, and Shell. The Amazon resolution is intended to target apartheid-like systems that exist today, says executive director Courtney Wicks.
“You have to ask what Amazon and the entire tech sector is doing,” Wicks says. “They make all these commitments around human rights, but at the core of their business plan is selling products to customers with a track record of human rights abuses.” Wicks would like to see Amazon introduce a screening process to vet potential government customers and turn down contracts likely to contribute to human rights violations.
Should Amazon shareholders approve the resolution, the company will be forced to join others that have been pressured by shareholders into paying more attention to the potential uses of their products.
Investor pressure led Microsoft to agree last year to conduct a human rights impact assessment of government contracts that Microsoft spokesperson Michelle Micor told WIRED is due out in early 2023. Outside of the tech industry, IASJ negotiated racial equity audits at Tyson Foods and Dow Chemical Company in December 2021 and March 2022, respectively.
But designating certain business practices as taboo doesn’t always change a company’s trajectory. Following protests against an AI contract with the US Department of Defense, Google in 2018 adopted AI ethics principles that forbid working on weapons or tech that goes against “widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.” Yet the company has since increased its defense work, both in the US and elsewhere, for instance with the Israel contract. A Google spokesperson told WIRED this year that although “not directed at highly sensitive or classified military workloads,” that deal supplies Google technology to the Israeli military.
Outside assessments of a company’s impact on human rights, as suggested today for Amazon, can also fall short. Facebook, for instance, commissioned an independent study of the platform's possible role in the genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, but a Harvard review last year found that the report failed to adequately assess the most significant roles played by the company’s products. The Harvard review warned that the relatively new tool of human-rights impact assessments risks being used as “ethics washing” by businesses attempting to avoid accountability. It said that in order to be effective, human-rights impact assessments must be done on an ongoing basis, after an initial baseline assessment.
A date has not been set for the next annual Amazon shareholder meeting, but it is expected to take place in spring 2023. It’s unusual for externally driven shareholder proposals to succeed, says Michael Pachter, managing director of equity research at Wedbush Securities. But he believes Amazon shareholders are now more passionate about environmental, social, and governance matters than in the past. Overall, he guesses the resolution has a 50-50 chance of passing.
“I see no real impediment to voting for this, nor do I see a massive pushback from Amazon management,” Pachter says. “While they might recommend against the proposal, they have to take the matter seriously by saying, ‘We would do this on our own anyway,’ and by demonstrating that they're cognizant of the risks of supporting governments with poor human rights records.”
Updated 12-15-2022, 1.45 pm EST: This story has been updated to clarify that American Baptist Home Mission Societies filed the Amazon shareholder resolution.