Reporter’s Notebook: Amazon Lobbied Against Portland’s Facial Recognition Ban

Amazon and a DC-based tech group with ties to the company's top lobbyist want to stop Portland's proposed facial recognition ban.

Late last year, two lobbyists representing Amazon met with city council staffers and the mayor’s office in Portland, Oregon. There was one thing they wanted to talk about: the city’s proposed facial recognition ban.

Amazon makes facial recognition technology, so a ban in yet another city would only chip away further at its ability to sell its facial recognition system, Rekognition.

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A facial recognition system guards the entry of the Jacksons Food Store at 621 SE Grand Avenue in Portland.

Already, at least seven U.S. municipalities prohibit facial recognition use by government agencies including police. But Portland lawmakers have been planning even stricter rules that would limit use by businesses and other private entities. And in Portland, that would actually outlaw activity of at least one company here that currently uses facial recognition – Jacksons Food Stores. (Check out my exclusive coverage of the convenience chain’s expansion of facial recognition tech to three stores in the city.)

 

As I reported in a new OneZero story, city records show Amazon spent $12,000 on its lobbying effort. It’s likely much of that covered fees paid to the Portland-based public affairs firm it hired, Oxley & Associates.

Sure, it’s the kind of pocket change you’d find under the cowhide rug at the Bezos ranch in West Texas. But it’s noteworthy. City records show this was the first and only time the tech giant had lobbied the city government.

A Little Journalistic Backstory…

I caught wind late last year of tech giants poking around Portland city hall. And it turned out lobbying disclosures filed on behalf of Amazon confirmed that the company had met with the city to discuss, as the filing specifically notes, “the Facial Recognition Technology Ordinance.”

But the records show the Amazon lobbying happened way back in November and December. So, why did it take so long to report? Well, a couple reasons: First, as a freelancer, I needed to find a good home for the story.

Sure, it’s the kind of pocket change you’d find under the cowhide rug at the Bezos ranch in West Texas. But it’s noteworthy.

To some editors, a tale about Amazon spending a measly twelve thousand bucks on lobbying in one place wasn’t that interesting. Were they lobbying against these facial recognition bans elsewhere? I did some research. I didn’t search exhaustively, but I didn’t find anything after looking at open lobbying records data from a couple other cities. Perhaps reporters familiar with other city lobbying records might find something – ?

Second, I wanted to wait to see whether Amazon had lobbied on this issue again in Portland the next quarter. After the filing date had come and gone, the city had not made public any lobbying reports for the first quarter of 2020. (In fact, they’re still not up.) It turned out COVID-19 had pushed off the deadline for companies to file. After a new deadline for disclosure filing had arrived, Portland’s auditor’s office sent me Amazon’s second-quarter report. It showed nothing.

Actually, here’s what it says: “I affirm that for the reporting quarter, this lobbying entity has spent less than 8 hours and less than $1,000 lobbying. No reports are required.”

I waited until I could find a home for the story. I worked on radio reports and other articles (like this one about Amazon’s COVID-19 health monitoring in a Portland fulfillment center – or this one about the risks of using flawed mobile location data in response to the pandemic). Then I got in touch with OneZero and they provided the perfect home for the story. Plus, they pay better than other outlets. Woo hoo!

What Did Amazon Want?

OK, so back to Amazon’s lobbying in late 2019. I still had to figure out what they wanted. City staffers told me on background that Amazon and others hoped to influence the language of the ordinance.

I talked to Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty on record in April for an update on the proposed ban, and to discuss a few other things. It’s no secret she wants a ban implemented as soon as possible. I asked her specifically about Amazon. She told me the company had visited her office and, among other companies, it wants to stop the ban – or at least to “soften the language.”

“Big corporations are accustomed to assisting policymakers in writing legislation that actually allows for wiggle room so that there are exceptions that they benefit from.”
– Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty

“As a former state legislator I understand how policy is written,” she told me. “When you write policy you have to be very, very, very specific if you want to have the outcomes that you are looking for. Big corporations are accustomed to assisting policymakers in writing legislation that actually allows for wiggle room so that there are exceptions that they benefit from.”

Neither Amazon nor its lobbyists responded to my requests for them to talk about their meetings in Portland (this was not surprising). So, it is not clear exactly what Amazon said during its time with city staff. However, we know from Hardesty and city staff they aim to influence the details of the policy. And we know they were willing to spend money to do it.

As I noted in the OneZero story though, Hardesty said they “can’t stop” the ban. She added, “If they can’t stop it, they’re hoping to soften the language so that they can have more wiggle room. And they also won’t be able to do that.”

Perfect Timing for an Op-Ed with Amazon Ties

Right around the time that Amazon lobbyists visited Portland city hall to influence the proposed ban on facial recognition, a Washington, D.C. technology “think tank” was preparing an opinion piece that would soon run in Oregon’s largest newspaper.

“Rather than take a ‘ban first, ask questions later’ approach, Portland should undertake a series of small-scale pilots of [facial recognition] technology to evaluate its effectiveness and impact on privacy in various settings,” argued Ashley Johnson, a research analyst for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in a January 15 Oregonian opinion column.

The board of the ITIF is loaded with top lobbyists from the world’s tech giants, including Amazon’s VP of Public Policy.

It turns out that the board of the ITIF is loaded with top lobbyists from the world’s tech giants. And, yes, Amazon’s VP of Public Policy Shannon Kellogg is among them. So, here we have another indication that corporate tech has its eyes on Portland’s proposed ban, and they aim to influence the conversation around it.

When I reported here in RedTail on the ITIF and its ties to big tech, the organization’s VP suggested its board members have no influence over what its research arm does. He told me its analyst team operates separately from the board. “I don’t even really interact with our board,” he told me. “They don’t peer over our shoulders and get advanced copies of what we are going to say.”

Those guiding the drafting of Portland’s facial recognition ban at SmartCityPDX wrote a retort, published a month later in the same paper. “This technology gives users access to sensitive data, is racially biased, has accuracy problems and lacks transparency and accountability when it comes to managing personal information and data protection,” wrote Hector Dominguez, open data coordinator at SmartCityPDX and Kevin Martin, the agency’s program manager.

For now, as it has pretty much everywhere around the world, COVID-19 has stalled legislative activity in Portland without direct relation to emergency pandemic response. However, Dominguez and others guiding Portland’s facial recognition ordinance say it remains in development and a vote will happen, though no date has been scheduled.

About Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning journalist with nearly twenty years of professional reporting experience chronicling the evolution of digital media and technology. One of the first reporters to track how political organizations use digital advertising, Kate is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a 2009 book (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1441488464/ref=cm_cr_thx_view) covering the digital media efforts of the 2008 presidential campaigns. Kate has appeared on NPR’s On the Media, Weekend Edition Sunday and the Brian Lehrer Show, in addition to Fox’s Stossel Show and CBC Radio.

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