Amazon's spat with the city of Seattle

It's hard to avoid Amazon on a visit to Seattle. It's one of the biggest corporations in the city, with 40,000 employees, and Seattle has been mulling how to deal with its looming housing crisis — with a new tax.

The proposal was fairly simple: a tax, per-head, on employees if your business generates at least $20 million in revenue annually, which would be used to directly address the housing crisis and homeless population. This is in stark contrast to San Francisco, which has struggled to grapple with its housing crisis and repeatedly struck down affordable housing proposals.

Amazon reacted to Seattle's new tax by throwing the brakes on its construction of a downtown campus, and threatened to kill a lease of an enormous new office space. The standoff lasted about a week, but eventually the company capitulated.

Remember, Amazon is currently engaged in something that makes this more complex: an awkward beauty pageant, in which cities must apply for a chance to get the company's "HQ2" built in one of their neighborhoods. Cities are falling over themselves to offer tax breaks, investments in public transit and more, while Seattle is trying to figure out what to do with the effects of a huge corporation in the heart of the city. 

What's wild is how little impact the tax would have on Amazon itself. Prospect reports that it's almost a rounding error on a balance sheet:

Frankly, the EHT would have only a modest impact on Amazon. We estimate that Amazon would pay about $24 million per year under the EHT for the next two years—or about one hundredth of 1 percent of its 2017 revenues of nearly $178 billion.

Amazon isn't afraid to use the HQ2 competition as leverage, and tried to back Seattle into a corner by holding it hostage with these huge construction projects, threatening to go elsewhere and take potential jobs with it. While the move blindsided city officials, they haven't backed down and Amazon did, begrudgingly, resume construction.

From the outside, there's a bizarre juxtaposition. Jeff Bezos said recently that "the only way he can imagine spending his riches is in space exploration," but there's a crisis unfolding on its back doorstep that the company claims it isn't responsible for in any way.

Don't be evil?

A few months back, it was reported that Google was engaged with the US military to help spin up a pilot program called Maven which was a project designed to use AI to analyse drone footage.

The project, which uses open-source Tensorflow technology, was using Google as an outside consultant to help get the system set up. Employees were furious when it was discovered, arguing that it doesn't gel well with the Don't be evil motto that was long held dear to the company.

Today, Gizmodo says that employees are beginning to resign specifically over the project and are demanding that Google take a stance on where the line is between helping the military, and the ethical concerns that come with it:

"The resigning employees believe that Google’s work on Maven is fundamentally at odds with the company’s do-gooder principles. “It’s not like Google is this little machine-learning startup that’s trying to find clients in different industries,” a resigning employee said. “It just seems like it makes sense for Google and Google’s reputation to stay out of that.”

Google, today, has the most formidable AI tools in the industry and its competitors are playing catch-up, so it was inevitable that the conversation began. Under its new CEO, Sundar Pichai, the challenge is to reconcile the ethics of helping build potential weapons with simply staying away and allowing the military to use the tools on its own.

Bloomberg has a great piece about these challenges, and the battle internally with employees. The last time Google faced a problem on this scale was when it exited China entirely in 2010, and what's most disconcerting is the lack of any real stance from the company.

Let's talk about this one in the community! I'm yet to come down with a stance on it, and would love to hear your thoughts.

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