Amazon internal chat app that censored talk of unions and ethics may 'never launch at all'

Filter list reportedly would block 'living wage,' 'pay rises,' 'restroom,' etc

Amazon allegedly planned an internal messaging app that filtered words like "union," "pay rise," and "ethics," alongside challenging and offensive terms, but after public disclosure of the project, the biz told The Register the software has not been approved and may never be deployed.

Citing internal Amazon documents, The Intercept on Monday said the online souk and rent-a-server biz has been working on an internal messaging app for staff designed to automatically block keywords associated with labor conditions and corporate controversies.

In November Amazon reportedly began discussing an internal social media program called "Shout Outs" to allow employees to recognize co-worker accomplishments. Concerned that negative sentiment might be expressed, company officials are said to have devised an "auto bad word monitor" – a word filtering scheme – to sanitize the service.

The filtered word list, cited by The Intercept, includes slurs and insults, along with terms tied to working conditions (pay rise, unfair, rate, union, grievance, compensation, fire, terminated), to contentious policies like staff not being allowed bathroom breaks (restrooms), and to words that might make for heated discussion (slave labor, plantation, ethics, diversity, vaccine, robots).

In an email to The Register, an Amazon spokesperson suggested the company's censorious app may never see the light of day.

"Our teams are always thinking about new ways to help employees engage with each other," said spokeswoman Barbara Agrait. "This particular program has not been approved yet and may change significantly or even never launch at all."

"If it does launch at some point down the road, there are no plans for many of the words called out to be screened. The only kinds of words that may be screened are ones that are offensive or harassing, which is intended to protect our team."

Amazon has long opposed unionization efforts and while it may have contemplated blocking union sentiment in text, the company worked even harder to prevent union manifestation in reality.

Which no doubt makes recent events particularly difficult for the company. Amazon warehouse workers last week voted to unionize at the company's facility in Staten Island, New York, the first successful union vote by Amazon employees in the US.

Amazon on Friday said it was disappointed with the outcome and is considering filing an objection to what the company described as "the inappropriate and undue influence by the [National Labor Relations Board]."

The lawyers would like a word too

In a phone interview, Wendy Musell, managing partner of law offices of Wendy Musell and of counsel for employment-law specialists Levy Vinick Burrell Hyams LLP, said the program as described sounds deeply flawed from a legal perspective.

"I'm not sure how that got past their legal department," she said. "Honestly, it's a recipe for disaster."

Musell cited two state laws – the California Equal Pay Act and Section 232 of the California Labor Code – that say employers cannot prohibit workers from discussing wages or the terms and conditions of their employment.

"It's deeply problematic that the chat app would prohibit words like 'pay raise,' 'living wage,' and similar terms," she said, adding that blocking words like "diversity," "injustice," and "harassment" also raise concerns.

Even if Amazon is just monitoring instances of these words, she said, that raises questions about what the company is doing with that data and whether it's being used to target employees in retaliation for protected activities.

"Employers don't have to provide this sort of chat app," said Musell. "But if you're going to do that, then prohibiting discussions that are expressly allowed under the law and tagging terms related to protected activity are problematic." ®

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