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A ‘Grass Roots’ Campaign to Take Down Amazon Is Funded by Amazon’s Biggest Rivals - WSJ
Sept. 20, 2019 | WSJ | By James V. Grimaldi.

Walmart, Oracle and mall owner Simon Property Group are secret funders behind a nonprofit that has been highly critical of the e-commerce giant

About 18 months ago a new nonprofit group called Free and Fair Markets Initiative launched a national campaign criticizing the business practices of one powerful company: Amazon.com Inc. AMZN -1.50%

Free and Fair Markets accused Amazon of stifling competition and innovation, inhibiting consumer choice, gorging on government subsidies, endangering its warehouse workers and exposing consumer data to privacy breaches. It claimed to have grass-roots support from average citizens across the U.S, citing a labor union, a Boston management professor and a California businessman.

What the group did not say is that it received backing from some of Amazon’s chief corporate rivals. They include shopping mall owner Simon Property Group Inc., SPG 0.27% retailer Walmart Inc. WMT -0.11% and software giant Oracle Corp. ORCL 0.19% , according to people involved with and briefed on the project. Simon Property is fighting to keep shoppers who now prefer to buy what they need on Amazon; Walmart is competing with Amazon over retail sales; and Oracle is battling Amazon over a $10 billion Pentagon cloud-computing contract.

The grass-roots support cited by the group was also not what it appeared to be. The labor union says it was listed as a member of the group without permission and says a document purporting to show that it gave permission has a forged signature. The Boston professor says the group, with his permission, ghost-wrote an op-ed for him about Amazon but that he didn’t know he would be named as a member. The California businessman was dead for months before his name was removed from the group’s website this year.

Free and Fair Markets, or FFMI, declined to reveal its funders or disclose if it has directors or a chief executive.

“The bottom line is that FFMI is focusing on the substantive issues and putting a spotlight on the way companies like Amazon undermine the public good—something that media outlets, activists, and politicians in both parties are also doing with increasing frequency,” it said in a statement in response to questions from The Wall Street Journal. “If Amazon can not take the heat then it should stay out of the kitchen.”

The creation of a group aimed solely at Amazon is an indication of the degree to which competing companies have coalesced to counter the growing and accumulated power of Amazon and how far competitors are increasingly willing to go to counter-strike. Lobbyists that exaggerate the extent of their grass-roots support—a practice known as “AstroTurf lobbying”—are common in Washington, but it is rare for a nonprofit group to be created for the sole purpose of going after a single firm.

Amazon is facing additional opaque opposition as well, with websites and articles popping up portraying the software giant as the Evil Empire. The website Monopolyamazon.com, which does not disclose who is behind it and registered its web address anonymously, includes a handful of articles calling on the Defense Department to reject Amazon’s bid for a $10 billion cloud-computing contract. For months last year, an anti-Amazon dossier circulated in Washington alleging conflicts of interest in the Pentagon procurement process and a chart from the document later reached President Trump before he asked for a review of the Amazon bid.

Free and Fair Markets is run by a strategic communications firm, Marathon Strategies, that works for large corporations, including Amazon rivals. Marathon founder Phil Singer is a veteran political operative who has worked as a top aide to prominent Democrats, including Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and on Hillary Clinton ’s 2008 presidential campaign.

In a statement, Mr. Singer defended the group. “FFMI is not obligated to disclose its donors and it does not,” Mr. Singer said.

Marathon initially asked for a fee of $250,000 per company to fund the anti-Amazon group, according to a person at one of the companies approached. Among those invited to fund the group but declined were a trade association that includes members who compete with Amazon, and International Business Machines Corp. , according to people familiar with the contacts. IBM, which declined to comment, previously was a client of Marathon.

In a statement, Amazon said, “The Free & Fair Markets Initiative appears to be little more than a well-oiled front group run by a high-priced public affairs firm and funded by self-interested parties with the sole objective of spreading misinformation about Amazon.”

Simon Property, the world’s largest mall landlord, declined to comment. Simon does not have any brick-and-mortar Amazon stores in its roughly 200 malls, outlets and open-air centers in the U.S., whereas its peers with smaller portfolios count multiple Amazon stores in theirs. The Indianapolis-based landlord recently launched its own online shopping platform, Shoppremiumoutlets.com.

Walmart funds the organization indirectly by paying an intermediary that pays for Free and Fair Markets, according to sources familiar with the arrangement. Walmart is a client of Marathon.

Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove said, “We are not financial supporters of the FFMI but we share concerns about issues they have raised.” Mr. Hargrove declined to comment further.

The group’s aim is to sully Amazon’s image on competition, data-security and workplace issues, while creating a sense of grass-roots support for increased government regulatory and antitrust enforcement, according to people familiar with the campaign.

Free and Fair Markets has lobbied the government for legislation and investigations of Amazon, sent dozens of letters and reports to Congress and staff, according to congressional staffers, published scores of op-eds in local and online media and tweeted hundreds of social media posts blasting Amazon.

Over the past year, many of the actions advocated by the group have gained traction. Amazon has come under increasing antitrust scrutiny from the Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission, states attorneys general and the European Union. In New York, Amazon backed out of plans to open a second headquarters in Long Island City after facing political opposition. Free and Fair Markets campaigned against government subsidies to support the site and tweeted more than 300 times on the topic.

Oracle provided financial support as part of an all-out strategy to stop Amazon from getting a $10 billion mega-contract to handle cloud computing for the Defense Department. The Pentagon eliminated Oracle as a bidder in the first round. Kenneth Glueck, who runs Oracle’s office in Washington, confirmed that the computer technology firm has contributed to the effort.

A goal of the organization was achieved in July when President Trump said he wanted to conduct a review of the contract. In August, the secretary of defense said he was investigating conflict-of-interest allegations surrounding the $10 billion contract known as Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI. At the urging of President Trump, the bid award has been put on hold during the review.

Mr. Trump, a frequent critic of Amazon, cited complaints about the project from several of Amazon’s competitors, which in addition to Oracle included IBM and Microsoft Corp. , saying he had heard the contract “wasn’t competitively bid.” The contract has not been awarded and Microsoft remains one of the two remaining bidders.

Though Free and Fair Markets has contacted members of Congress and the administration, it has not registered as a lobbying organization. Such groups are required to file with Congress if more than 20% of their work involves lobbying. Marathon said it complies with lobby disclosure rules.

None of the articles notes that Mr. Engel’s group is funded by rivals of Amazon.

A spokeswoman for The Hill said the publication was unaware of the funding sources and failure to disclose such payments violates a standard written agreement all op-ed writers are required to sign.

Sandy Shea, managing editor of opinion for the Inquirer’s parent company, the Philadelphia Media Network, said, “We aren’t equipped to investigate the makeup or structure of a nonprofit that submits a piece.”

Bill Zeiser, RealClearPolicy editor, said RealClearMedia publishes “commentary on politics and public policy from a wide array of sources. These submissions are assessed on their editorial merits.”

Representatives of the Post-Gazette and Chronicle did not respond to emails.

In an interview earlier this year, Mr. Engel said the motive of the group was not to promote the views of Amazon’s rivals. He said Amazon has been the only target because its business tactics run counter to the group’s goal of free and fair markets. “The one organization that feels it stands above that is Amazon,” Mr. Engel said.

Marathon did not make Mr. Engel available for comment a second time after the Journal determined that rivals were funding the group.

Mr. Engel and his group have been quoted in publications, including once each in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. None said who funded the group.

One article about Free and Fair Markets was commissioned by Marathon.

Last October, an Iowa writer and consultant, Jeff Patch, published an article on RealClearPolicy.com, a news website known for political coverage, about a report by Free and Fair Markets critical of Amazon’s record of hiring and firing women. “Many [women] were fired after Amazon concocted pretexts for their terminations,” Mr. Patch wrote.

Mr. Patch, who has worked as a journalist and a staffer for a Republican congressman and conservative think tanks, did not disclose in his article at the time that he was a paid contractor for Marathon.

Bank statements and invoices reviewed by the Journal show that Mr. Patch billed Marathon, and was paid thousands of dollars… [more]
Amazon  clandestine  contra-Amazon  countermeasures  counternarratives  dark_side  e-commerce  grass-roots  lobbying  lobbyists  nonprofit  Oracle  Simon_Properties  sophisticated  Wal-Mart 
september 2019 by jerryking
Facebook’s Security Chief to Depart for Stanford University
Aug. 1, 2018 | The New York Times| By Sheera Frenkel and Kate Conger.

Alex Stamos, Facebook's Security Chief, will exit this month to join Stanford University in September as an adjunct professor and become part of a faculty working group called Information Warfare where he will examine the role of security and technology in society.....In an internal Facebook post from January Stamos wrote that the company’s security team was being reorganized and would no longer operate as a stand-alone entity. Instead, he wrote, Facebook’s security workers would be more closely aligned with the product and engineering teams and focus either on protecting the company’s corporate infrastructure or its users......Stamos had been working with the Stanford cyberpolicy program for several years and had piloted a “hack lab” class this past spring.....At Stanford, he plans to study the upcoming midterms and the role of technology, as well as election security more broadly and the topic of disinformation. He said he would also look at subjects as basic as passwords and try to reimagine how they could be made more secure.........Mr. Stamos also said Information Warfare was a new working group at Stanford with about 14 faculty members across academic disciplines. The group, which will begin meeting this fall, plans to research information warfare tactics and to develop countermeasures. Mr. Stamos said he planned to teach a class for law and policy students on how hackers attack, with the goal of familiarizing future policymakers with common hacking techniques......Stamos wants to address issues including online child safety and the naming of a country or group responsible for a cyberattack.
cyberattacks  cyber_security  Colleges_&_Universities  disinformation  Facebook  information_warfare  security_&_intelligence  Sheryl_Sandberg  Stanford  political_influence  C-suite  countermeasures  hackers 
august 2018 by jerryking
China’s Cheating Husbands Fuel an Industry of ‘Mistress Dispellers’ - The New York Times
By EMILY FENG and CHARLOTTE YANG JULY 29, 2016

Typically hired by a scorned wife, they coach women on how to save their marriages, while inducing the mistress to disappear. For a fee that can start in the tens of thousands of dollars, they will subtly infiltrate the mistress’s life, winning her friendship and trust in an attempt to break up the affair. The services have emerged as China’s economy has opened up in recent decades, and as extramarital affairs grew more common.....Mistress dispelling typically begins with research on the targeted woman, said Shu Xin, Weiqing’s director. An investigation team — often including a psychotherapist and, to keep on the safe side, a lawyer — analyzes her family, friends, education and job before sending in an employee whom Weiqing calls a counselor.

“Once we figure out what type of mistress she is — in it for money, love or sex — we draw up a plan,” Mr. Shu said.

The counselor might move into the mistress’s apartment building or start working out at her gym, getting to know her, becoming her confidante and eventually turning her feelings against her partner. Sometimes, the counselor finds her a new lover, a job opening in another city or otherwise persuades her to leave the married man. Weiqing and other agencies said their counselors were prohibited from becoming intimately involved with the mistresses or from using or threatening violence.
China  relationships  marriage  marital_strife  marital_breakdowns  infidelity  pre-emption  humint  spycraft  countermeasures  infiltration 
august 2016 by jerryking
Go Ahead, Take a Risk
June 22, 2004 | WSJ | By ADRIAN SLYWOTSKY

What are the risks you should be taking but aren't? Most managers treat risk as an unwanted byproduct of the business. They think narrowly of financial, operating, and hazard risks, such as currency fluctuations, employee fraud, and earthquakes. And they defend themselves through practices like hedging, internal controls, and insurance.

But disruptive strategic risks can be a much larger source of value destruction for a firm. I looked back to the bull market of the 1990s to analyze movements of the Fortune 1000 stocks; even then, before the market collapsed, 10% of stocks lost over one-quarter of their value in a single month, primarily because of strategic-risk events.

The most successful companies do not try to simply minimize strategic risk; they embrace such risk by making prudent bets in their growth-oriented strategies. Strategic risks include not just the obvious, high-probability events that a new ad campaign or new product launch will fail, but other less-obvious risks as well: Customers' priorities will change quickly -- as when baby-boomer parents quickly migrated from station wagons to minivans, catching most automakers off guard. New technology will overtake your product -- as mobile telephony has stolen market share from fixed-line voice. A one-of-a-kind competitor will render your business model obsolete -- as the Wal-Mart tidal wave has washed over mid-range department stores.

Although insurance and hedging can't address strategic risks, there are an array of countermeasures that can, including these three:
1) Smart sequencing for new growth initiatives. Look for incumbents that are moving deliberately, leveraging existing assets and customer relationships to gain the experience, knowledge, and reputation necessary to take the next step with confidence.
2) Proprietary information to reduce the risk of each new initiative. Gather and generate proprietary information that produces a depth of insight into the customer's needs and activities that traditional suppliers cannot match. This will make you a supplier of choice, reducing bidding volatility and allow you to plan with greater certainty.
3) Double betting to minimize the risk of obsolescence. When several versions of a new technology are competing to become the standard, it's impossible to predict which will prevail. So smart managers make double bets. Betting on both Windows and OS/2 positioned Microsoft to be the winner, regardless of which operating system prevailed.

Traditional risk management seeks to contain losses. But that's just one-half of the growth equation. By embracing strategic risk, Cardinal, JCI, and other risk-savvy companies have raised their growth potential in addition to reducing their economic volatility. That's important at a time when aggregate market growth is sluggish: The biggest risk of all is not to take the right growth risks for the business.
leaps_of_faith  Adrian_J._Slywotzky  risk-taking  proprietary  sequencing  scuttlebutt  information  growth  strategic_thinking  Mercer  Oliver_Wyman  product_launches  nonpublic  low_growth  slow_growth  insights  customer_insights  value_destruction  disruption  insurance  new_products  obsolescence  countermeasures  volatility  customer_risk  one-of-a-kind  hedging  overly_cautious  risk-aversion  de-risking  double_betting  risk-management  bull_markets  customer_relationships  dark_data  risk-savvy  internal_controls  financial_risk  risks 
june 2012 by jerryking
Rivals Secretly Finance Opposition to Wal-Mart - WSJ.com
JUNE 7, 2010 |WSJ | By ANN ZIMMERMAN. Rival Chains Secretly
Fund Opposition to Wal-Mart. Saint Consulting Group is a specialist at
fighting proposed Wal-Marts, and it uses tactics it describes as "black
arts." Mr. Saint, a former newspaper reporter and political press
secretary, founded his firm 26 years ago. It specializes in using
political-campaign tactics—petition drives, phone banks, websites—to
build support for or against controversial projects, from oil refineries
and shopping centers to quarries and landfills. Over the years, it has
conducted about 1,500 campaigns in 44 states. Mr. Saint says about 500
have involved trying to block a development, and most of those have been
clandestine.
Wal-Mart  competitive_intelligence  retailers  clandestine  big-box  unions  countermeasures  counternarratives  political_campaigns  controversies  oil_refiners  dark_side  sophisticated  power_to_obstruct 
june 2010 by jerryking

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