Exclusive: Amazon’s First Employee Calls Company a “Huge and Unstoppable Force”


February 13, 2020

Twenty-six years ago, programmer Shel Kaphan helped build the foundation for the world’s largest internet retailer. Now, in an exclusive interview with FRONTLINE, Kaphan said he is concerned about the “huge and unstoppable force” he says the company has become.

“I think that the characterization of Amazon as being a ruthless competitor is true,” Kaphan said. “And under the flag of customer obsession, they can do a lot of things, which might not be good for people who aren’t their customers.”

Kaphan spoke to FRONTLINE for the upcoming documentary Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos, which airs Feb. 18. In the interview, highlights of which are excerpted below, he expresses his concerns about the impact of Amazon on competition and innovation and says it “could potentially make sense” to break up parts of the company. He says he’s “proud” of the company and the services it provides, and also casts new light on Amazon’s earliest days and its founder Jeff Bezos — now the planet’s richest person.

A number of senior Amazon executives also spoke to FRONTLINE for the film, and take decidedly different views on many of Kaphan’s concerns — disputing the idea that because of its size there needs to be some kind of intervention, or that it is stifling competition in any way.

The company has been the subject of increasing attention in recent days — with Democratic senators criticizing Amazon for how it treats workers, and Amazon publicly touting its commitment to its employees and its role in helping the American economy.

On whether the company should be broken up

Kaphan considered the possibility that Amazon should be broken up “to level the playing field” — his first time speaking out about this and his other concerns:

Kaphan said his concerns about Amazon are not just about the retail platform but on software products on AWS as well. “The main thing I am concerned about is just preserving the ability for small companies to innovate and to do so without fear of having their business taken away,” he said.

On why he’s speaking out

Kaphan says he hasn’t spoken to Bezos in decades but was motivated to air his concerns now after he read Zucked, a tell-all book written by Roger McNamee, former mentor of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

How Kaphan met Bezos

What drew him to work with Bezos, Kaphan said, was a desire to work on cutting-edge web architecture, or “hypertext,” and his love of working with books. When the pair first met in 1994, he said, something “clicked into place.”

“He came out to Santa Cruz and we all met at my house and went out to get pancakes for breakfast at one of the local places and drove around,” he recounted. “It was a very pleasant and optimistic kind of a meeting.”

On Amazon’s early days

Kaphan described Amazon’s earliest iterations as “fun” and “eclectic.” That changed as the company grew. “There was a bit of a culture clash between the very early, generation zero of Amazon, and the people that started coming in,” said Kaphan, noting the business-school graduates who flocked to the company.

When asked about the mentality that Bezos brought to Amazon from Wall Street, Kaphan said: “It’s basically cold-blooded. It’s looking at things through a particular, fairly narrow lens that — it’s valid, but it’s not complete.”

Kaphan said Bezos “likes to win at any cost.” And, while he never heard Bezos explicitly say so, Kaphan says he found Bezos’ worldview to be “essentially libertarian.”

On what to do now

Despite his concerns, Kaphan made one thing clear: breaking up parts of Amazon’s businesses won’t fix systemic problems — of lax regulation and the nature of capitalism itself — that he believes allowed the company to grow. “If you want to change the way everybody behaves, then you have to change the system,” he said. “You can’t just ask one player to change the way that they act.”

He also addressed concerns around specific technologies and tools used by Amazon, including its proprietary doorbell camera system, Ring. “I’m not all that comfortable with the way that that is used or that’s being shared with the police departments,” he said. Those concerns fit a general worry of his, that the company isn’t interested in slowing down growth or adding additional oversight to its products and services.

In the absence of federal regulation or intervention, Kaphan said Amazon’s supremacy will make America’s inequality problem worse. “Some amount of inequality is inevitable and motivating,” he said. “But if you take it too far, you reach like a breaking point where we’re going to see things potentially get uglier. And I don’t want to see that.”

Correction 2/13/20: This post has been updated to remove an erroneous description of ARPANET; and to clarify that Kaphan’s view that Bezos “likes to win at any cost” isn’t linked to what Kaphan describes as Bezos’ “essentially libertarian” worldview.

Karen Pinchin

Karen Pinchin, Former Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism Fellowship, FRONTLINE


Anya Bourg

Anya Bourg, Producer, FRONTLINE

James Jacoby

James Jacoby, Director, Producer, Correspondent, FRONTLINE

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