Given how many big names have fallen over the last few weeks due to sexual misconduct, abuse and harassment, you’d think I’d name 2017 as the year of power abuse. However, while I know a lot of folks think the issue is dying down, I don’t see that at all.
There are entire industries that have yet to be hit by this, and Congress hasn’t even finished cleaning house or putting in place rules to prevent this activity. Last week I pointed out how Google was abusing its power in holding Amazon Echo Show customers hostage to force Amazon to sell products it didn’t want to sell.
As if to prove a point, also last week, Amazon cut off every service it provided to me because I’d disputed a series of charges on my credit card that I couldn’t reconcile. Suddenly, rather than viewing Amazon as a benign and attractive service, I was reminded of how much power these mega firms are gathering and how their employees can abuse it.
Imagine if I’d been using AWS for my business. I’d have been SOL until I paid Amazon the money, whether I owed it or not. This seems dangerously close to blackmail, and it showcases the power abuses we are likely to see in 2018 and beyond from some mega firms.
I’ll walk you through what happened to me and then close with my product of the year: the 25th Anniversary ThinkPad, the best of what may be a dying breed — standalone laptops.
Abuse of Power
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is attributed to John Emerich Edward Dalberg Action (must have been a sale on names that year), who said it back in 1887 to Bishop Mandell Creighton. The part of the quote that almost always gets left out is “Great men are almost always bad men … .” His reference was to the absolute power of monarchies, exemplified by Roman emperors who declared themselves gods, and Napoleon Bonaparte who declared himself emperor.
Today the most obvious showcase for power abuse likely is North Korea’s mercurial leader Kim Jong-un, who has been raising himself to godhood (apparently one of the more recent claims is that he can control the weather).
The Business Dictionary’s definition of abuse of power, which is appropriate for this piece, is as follows: “The act of using one’s position of power in an abusive way. This can take many forms, such as taking advantage of someone, gaining access to information that shouldn’t be accessible to the public, or just manipulating someone with the ability to punish them if they don’t comply.”
Up to now, I’ve been most concerned with Google and Apple — both of which seem to use their power like a club. Well, the karma folks apparently wanted to teach me a lesson.
Now let me tell you my story.
My Amazon Nightmare
Two weeks ago I got a bill for around US$2K from Citibank on a card that I largely stopped using six months ago for everything but a few subscriptions — it recently has been $100 to $200. Looking at the bill, I saw a series of Amazon charges I couldn’t find in my Amazon account. Thinking someone had hacked my account, I disputed the charges. (The information given didn’t say what the charges were for or who had made them.)
Last Sunday I woke up to find all my Kindles deregistered, all my Fire TVs deregistered and all my Amazon Echos deregistered. Also, I was locked out of my Amazon account. That meant none of the movies or TV shows I had purchased were accessible, and I was locked out of my paid-up music subscription. I could no longer even look at my account to discuss the charges in dispute.
Now, I’ve been an Amazon customer since almost the beginning of Amazon (1998). I was one of its first Prime customers, and I do (well, did) most of my shopping on Amazon. I called support and was told no one could help me — I would just have to handle it over email or FAX. (Who uses FAX anymore?)
I asked that someone contact me to go over the charges and confirm they were mine, but I was directed to pay the disputed charges if I wanted my stuff back (no attempt to reconcile the charges). According to the email, if you dispute a charge on Amazon it will close your account until you pay the disputed amount. One of the amounts disputed was for $1,704.65, according to the email, and I was able to look up the order once the account was restored.
It was for one Echo Show that I gave as a gift. My Amazon account shows it cost $179 — so why was the charge around 10x that? Suddenly I know why Amazon is so profitable. (After spending some time with Amazon after the fact, it didn’t charge me the $1,704.65 — but apparently no one felt the need to tell me that in email or over the phone after I’d been told to authorize this bogus charge.)
In talking to the account folks, they did say if you don’t contact the company quickly enough, they start shutting things down to get your attention. (By the way, I show my first notice of a problem at 9:42 a.m. on Sunday, and the notice that my account was shut down at, wait for it, 9:42 a.m. on Sunday.)
There is no justification for Amazon to have barred me from accessing things I’d already purchased because I had disputed a charge. I’m still working this problem, and I expect that some low-level employee made a mistake, or some automatic policy kicked in — but it showcases the growing problem with mega companies.
Wrapping Up: Looking Ahead
Now let’s jump ahead to 2018, when many of us will be using services like Amazon for our food and medication, on top of TV, books and shopping. In the future, a firm like Amazon could be providing our transportation (through an Uber-like service). It could be managing aspects of our medical care, and it might even be renting us our apartment.
Now imagine if we dispute a bill or voice an opinion it doesn’t like. Suddenly we could be homeless, without transportation, unable to access our cloud services (thank god, I don’t use AWS), or get access to our meds. If there were medical equipment tied to the account, that could be shut off too.
Now I’m not attributing what Amazon did to extortion — though it surely felt that way. It likely was a combination of automated systems and low-level employees who were just ticking off boxes. Still, the implications, as mega firms gain even greater breadth, is that one mistake eventually could leave you homeless. (Imagine if I’d had that Amazon lock for my home. Would I have been locked out of my house?)
I think we are going to see many more abuses of power — both the kind that has knocked out so many powerful people, and the kind wielded by mega companies — Google, Amazon and others — that increasingly support our lives. They could cut us off on a whim without much if any recourse. This brave new world may turn out to suck, largely because power corrupts, and the near absolute power these folks have been acquiring could corrupt them absolutely.
I was thinking about all the product of the week offerings and a number of them came to mind: Symantec’s Norton Core comprehensive home cybersecurity product; the new Surface Book 2, arguably the most beautiful notebook-like product I have; the Jedi Challenges; the Sonos with Alexa (granted I’m not feeling warm and fuzzy about Amazon now). There was even the HP PageWide Printer.
As I thought it over, what resonated most was that the ThinkPad always has been the gold standard for laptops. I’ve been on the advisory board for ThinkPads longer than any other board (going back decades), and for me, this anniversary addition combined all the old stuff I loved with all the new stuff I’ve come to love in an effective package that is light enough, with decent battery life and the iconic ThinkPad look.
I’ve been using the ThinkPad 25 for several months now, and it is an impressive product. I’m getting about seven hours of battery life from it. (I haven’t run it out completely yet.) It has enough power for me to play games and get my work done, and it is the near perfect blend of size and weight.
It is the result of 25 years of our board’s feedback and effort. Maybe I’m feeling nostalgic, but the ThinkPad has existed nearly from the day I became an external analyst. I’d like to think that if I were a product, I’d be as good as this laptop is.
With the emergence of the always-connected class of notebooks, the traditional laptop likely is on its last legs, except for those who need extra performance. So this also may be the last best notebook. Certainly by the time another 25 years goes by, this form factor will be history.
Because the ThinkPad 25 is such a nice blend of the present and the past, because it may be the last best laptop ever, and because it connects to so much of my career, the ThinkPad 25 year anniversary edition is my product of the year.
Next year I’m shooting for a flying car.