The Law of the Jungle

It’s bad that your existence in social media is subject to the whims of algorithms. It’s worse that your ability to earn a living off the popularity of your ideas can be eliminated if they don’t conform with the platform’s sensibilities. But when your livelihood is selling goods, and depends on the kindness of the 800 lb. (or$175 billion) gorilla in the online marketplace, Amazon, what is there to do when things go wrong?

As Amazon has escalated its war on fake reviews, sellers have realized that the most effective tactic is not buying them for yourself, but buying them for your competitors — the more obviously fraudulent the better. A handful of glowing testimonials, preferably in broken English about unrelated products and written by a known review purveyor on Fiverr, can not only take out a competitor and allow you to move up a slot in Amazon’s search results, it can land your rival in the bewildering morass of Amazon’s suspension system.

The “law” of Amazon is its terms of service. But writing law is hard. Executing it is even harder. Of course, Amazon isn’t a nation state in reality, but just a private corporation running a platform where billions of dollars can be made. Or lost. While we obsess over the inadequacy of the legal system to address all the nastiness mankind can conceive in the real legal system, the “law” in the Nation of Amazon not only flies under our radar, but remains largely a black box of algorithms, mindless application of pseudo-rules and pre-written responses that outsourced workers in India send when your company’s, your dozen employees’, lives are on the line.

One of the lessons of “real law” is that whenever lines are drawn, they become a challenge to come up with a way to circumvent them. Making complaints is easy. Dealing with them, not so much.

Many sellers can’t even figure out what Amazon is accusing them of. A suspension message will typically list an item along with a broad and tangentially related category of an infraction, like “used sold as new.” Understandably, sellers respond by sending invoices that show that the items are, in fact, new…“Just proving to Amazon that your goods are new is not good enough because Amazon wants you to address why the buyers thought they were used.” One seller described the typical process as Amazon saying, “I’m putting you in jail but not telling you what you did, now give me a justification for why I should let you out and you won’t do it again.”

It’s not as if you can call anyone at Amazon. There’s no one to call, no one to speak with like business people having a normal business discussion. You get an email. You send an email. You get an email in response. These emails may have nothing to do with either reality or each other, just form responses. Ever try arguing with an irrelevant or uninformative email?

It’s not that there aren’t bad actors on Amazon. There obviously are. But the competition between sellers for position is vicious, and the “legal system” in the Nation of Amazon lends itself to abuse by sellers undermining other sellers.

Keywords become weapons in the game of destroying one’s competition on Amazon. From flagrantly fake reviews to challenges of fake safety, legitimacy of the product or one of the new favs, allegations of counterfeit good and intellectual property infringement, malicious product sellers can ruin their competition.

Amazon calls them “appeals,” which suggests that there’s a possibility of having the verdict overturned. In reality, they’re more like a plea bargain crossed with a business memo, the core of which is a “plan of action” — an explanation of how you’ll make things right. And to make things right, you need to admit to having done something wrong.

Even if you’re selling wonderful, brand-new, non-counterfeit goods, a “customer” claim is enough to have Amazon pull the plug. Try explaining to your employees, whose children eat because you pay them with the proceeds earned on Amazon, that they need not come to work anymore because someone said your perfectly real goods weren’t real. What “plan of action” would you propose to cure the problem, make them double real?

JC Hewitt, whose law firm frequently works with Amazon sellers, calls the system’s mandatory guilty pleas, arbitrary verdicts, and obscure language “a Kafkaesque bureaucracy with bad writing.” Inscrutable rulings emerge as if from a black box. The Performance team, which handles suspensions, has no phone number; there’s no one to ask for clarification. The only way to interact with them is by filing an appeal, and when it’s rejected, sellers often have no idea why.

You get one appeal. If you want to argue that the complaint is utterly baseless, you lose. If you want to propose a fix, you may satisfy the Amazon elves. But you may not, in which case your “appeal” is denied, no reason given.

The appeals are “considered” by what Amazon delightfully calls its “Performance Team,” whose members are incentivized to reject your appeal for its own performance matrix.

An algorithm flags sellers based on a range of metrics — customer complaints, number of returns, certain keywords used in reviews, and other, more mysterious variables — and passes them to Performance workers based in India, Costa Rica, and other locations. These workers choose between several prewritten blurbs to send to sellers. They may see what the actual problem is or the key item missing from an appeal, but they can’t be more specific than the forms allow, according to Rachel Greer, who worked as a fraud investigator at Amazon before becoming a seller consultant.

The Performance workers’ incentives favor rejection. They must process approximately one claim every four minutes, and reinstating someone who later gets suspended again counts against them, according to McCabe and others. When they fall behind, Stine says, they’ll often “punt” by sending requests for more information, as Harmon experienced.

While it’s true that no one forces sellers to use Amazon as their platform, and that Amazon, as a private corporation, can run its show any damn way it pleases, provided it doesn’t breach contracts in the process. But even if it does, what are you going to do about it? Sellers make money selling, not suing, spending a ton of money and getting a ruling years later.

In the meantime, the malicious competitor who falsely framed you gets your top spot and the chance to sell, sell, sell. Until the next upstart competitor games the algorithm and does the same to him.

11 thoughts on “The Law of the Jungle

  1. wilbur

    Can we safely predict there will always be room – and a supporting market – for brick and mortar stores?

    1. SHG Post author

      If you’re a consumer, what do you care if malicious shenanigans are being pulled on the seller side? As long as you get it quick and cheap, life is good.

  2. Dan

    Regardless of the contract terms, the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing is going to be at issue–and if things truly are as arbitrary as is being claimed, Amazon could be in breach of that. None of which helps the sellers in the short term, of course.

      1. B. McLeod

        Indeed. They likely have tons of provisions where sellers give up all remedies. It looks like the business answer to this has to be not to become dependent on Amazon for your distribution system. Any public corporations who have this risk should be having to describe it in their disclosures to investors, and it is hard to see investors putting in their dollars subject to this kind of arbitrary prospect of total failure.

        Always thought that was a great song, by the way. Lots of small folk groups used to perform it in the 1950s and 60s.

  3. Karl Kolchak

    This type of behavior is what spurned on the trust-busters in the early 20th century. Small businesses became tired if monopolies overcharging them and denying service (as in the case of the railroads).

          1. Will

            Gladly. I’m only 27 and I would jettison all of the large silicon-based corporationsI if it meant even a slight return to market sanity or parity.

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