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iRobot vacuum cleaners on display at Target

iRobot vacuum cleaners are displayed in a Los Angeles Target on February 1, 2020. (Photo: Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Coalition Tells FTC to Curb Amazon 'Surveillance Empire' by Blocking Purchase of iRobot

"There is no more private space than the home. Yet with this acquisition, Amazon stands to gain access to extremely intimate acts in our most private spaces that are not available through other means, or to other competitors."

Jessica Corbett

More than two dozen groups critical of Amazon's anti-competitive and invasive practices on Friday urged the Biden administration to block the tech giant's acquisition of iRobot, known for its Roomba vacuum cleaners, "on the strongest legal grounds it can muster."

"The deal will further entrench Amazon's hold on the smart home technology ecosystem, eliminate competition in that sector, and enhance the company's monopoly power."

The coalition—which includes Fight for the Future, Electronic Frontier Foundation, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and Public Citizen—wrote to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about the $1.7 billion all-cash deal, which was announced last month.

"The proposed deal poses a striking set of concerns related to consumer privacy and market competition," the letter states. "Allowing Amazon to absorb a competing smart home device business with access to incredibly detailed consumer data would endanger fair competition and open markets while also jeopardizing consumer privacy."

The letter highlights that "Amazon already dominates the smart home device market," pointing to all the Alexa-powered devices, and argues that the company's "business model largely relies on acquiring rivals," noting its 2018 acquisition of the doorbell maker Ring.

According to the coalition:

By 2021, Amazon Ring had crushed competing smart doorbell makers—selling as many units as its four closest competitors combined. Amazon's success relied on selling low-price Ring doorbells through its almost ubiquitous e-commerce platform, aided by integration with the company's subscription program, Amazon Prime.

Amazon seeks to follow a similar path in buying iRobot. By purchasing an already popular smart home device, they will be able to extend the device's prevalence through anti-competitive pricing while using personal consumer data to further entrench their monopoly power in the digital economy. By selling the Roomba brand at or near a loss via the Prime subscription, the company can access more personal consumer data to buttress its anti-competitive advantages online. In short, the deal will further entrench Amazon's hold on the smart home technology ecosystem, eliminate competition in that sector, and enhance the company's monopoly power.

The letter also emphasizes that "there is no more private space than the home. Yet with this acquisition, Amazon stands to gain access to extremely intimate facts about our most private spaces that are not available through other means, or to other competitors," including consumers' home floor plans, daily routines, and lifestyle choices.

"Amazon uses data not only to further its anti-competitive goals as described in further detail above, but also to feed data-hungry algorithms that attempt to predict and shape the behavior of individual consumers," the letter explains. "These algorithms, when paired with Amazon's worldwide impact, exacerbate racist and gender-biased systems of oppression."

Acknowledging that civil rights groups have spent years "sounding the alarm on the dangers that Amazon's network of smart home surveillance devices pose to Black and brown communities," the coalition is warning that "as with Ring, this acquisition will lead to unanticipated harmful consequences, particularly in an environment where previously established privacy rights, such as the right to obtain an abortion, are eroding."

Fight for the Future director Evan Greer echoed the coalition's warnings in a statement Friday.

"The tech giant's Big Brother-like surveillance network shares warrantless surveillance data with the police, incentivizes racists to criminalize people of color, and gives forced birthers the tools to surveil and snitch on abortion seekers and providers," she said. "As Amazon's surveillance empire grows in size, so do its threats to all of us."

"It's clear Amazon is gobbling up companies to reach its surveillance tentacles deeper into every aspect of our lives, with no regard for the civil rights disasters it leaves in its wake. Amazon only cares about destroying any competition and reaping unparalleled profit," she asserted, pointing to the company's $8.5 billion acquisition of the film and television studio MGM.

That unchallenged sale was finalized in May, "and now MGM is planning a reality TV show to air footage from Ring surveillance cameras," Greer explained. "This dangerous propaganda attempts to normalize surveillance and put a happy face on Amazon's abuse. Such efforts will have a long-lasting impact, especially on our kids and their sense of control over their privacy and their bodies—both physical and digital."

Greer also pointed out that "we know the FTC cares about privacy rights," because the agency—led by Lina Khan—is already "exploring rule-making to address privacy abuses."

"That's a great start, but any real effort to protect the public from surveillance and data abuse must include blocking clearly harmful acquisitions," she said. "If the FTC commissioners care about protecting privacy, communities of color, and pregnant people, they will challenge Amazon's iRobot acquisition."

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