It sometimes feels that the “enemy hordes are at the gates,” in a way that Amazon hasn’t seen in years past.
That was the assessment of one shareholder who quizzed CEO Jeff Bezos during the question-and-answer session at the company’s annual meeting Wednesday morning in Seattle. The shareholder cited a “bumpy year” in the press, a big European tax bill, rumblings of potential antitrust scrutiny, and of course President Donald Trump’s tweets criticizing Bezos and Amazon on a variety of topics.
The shareholder asked: “Is this the price one pays for getting this big, this powerful? Is this a trend, is it going to blow over?”
Bezos seemed eager to address the question. He responded by pointing out how much Amazon has grown, expanding to nearly 600,000 employees worldwide from less than 30,000 a decade ago. And with that growth, he said, it’s only natural for the company to come to under increased scrutiny.
“My own view on this is that all large institutions of any kind whether they be government agencies, nonprofits, universities, and certainly including big corporations, deserve to be inspected and scrutinized,” he said. “It’s normal.”
Bezos said he talks about this inside Amazon. “I say, ‘Look, we are a large corporation. We deserve to be inspected. It’s going to happen. Don’t take it personally.’ Because when you take it personally, you start to do things that are counterproductive.”
He added, “I think it’s a natural piece of being a large corporation. I tell you how we handle it. There’s only one way to handle it, and that is that we have to conduct ourselves in such a way that when we are scrutinized, we pass with flying colors.”
The topic is especially notable right now given growing concerns about the tech industry’s impact on society in a variety of areas. Amazon hasn’t faced the same questions about personal privacy that have dogged Facebook and Google, given the differences in its business, but the company’s growing influence on all areas of commerce and its ambitious expansion plans make it a common target of criticism.
A wide variety of protesters and activists gathered outside the event, including some who supported a shareholder proposal at the meeting to create more independent oversight of Bezos by separating the roles of CEO and chairman, both of which he currently holds. Shareholders voted the proposal down, but 26 percent of them favored the initiative, an unusually large percentage for Amazon shareholder proposals.