Amazon’s Dangerous New Acquisition

The company’s purchase of iRobot, the maker of the Roomba, likely has little to do with cleaning floors.

An illustration of a small office with a Roomba tracking everything in it, on a red background.
Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic

Earlier this month, Amazon announced that it was buying the Roomba vacuum maker iRobot. On the surface, this move looks like a massive online retail marketplace acquiring a popular gadget to sell to its loyal shoppers. Roomba is a sparkling consumer product, and iRobot has sold 40 million of them over the past two decades. Shoppers today find them occupying end caps at big retailers such as Costco and Target. The device’s smooth, spinning design has given it a huge chunk of the $3 billion-a-year robot-vacuum market; three quarters of all smart vacuums sold in America bear the Roomba name. In that way, the deal makes sense.

But my suspicion is that, for Amazon, the deal has nothing to do with cleaning your floors. What it seems to be about—expanding the company’s reach further into people’s lives—should trouble everyone.

Amazon’s monopoly power looks like this: Sales on Amazon account for at least half of all online commerce in the U.S. Three out of every four product searches begin on the site. Amazon’s shipping and warehousing service delivers about a quarter of all e-commerce packages in America and is on pace to overtake UPS as the second-largest consumer package-delivery company after the U.S. Postal Service. Amazon Web Services is by far the largest cloud-computing company in the country. Amazon Echo accounts for two-thirds of all smart speakers. This is by no means a complete accounting.

The iRobot deal follows a known Amazon strategy, one that Jeff Bezos has admitted to in the past: using mergers to buy its way to dominance. (I asked Amazon if this is what it’s doing with Roomba, but the company did not comment.) Several companies make and sell robotic vacuums, including brands like Shark and others. But Roomba is the household name, so ubiquitous that it’s shorthand for every other robot vacuum available. By simply taking over the company that makes the most popular product in the industry, Amazon can grow its monopoly without actually having to out-innovate and out-compete its rivals.

Amazon can then use its gatekeeper power by pairing Roomba with its monopoly online marketplace and Prime subscription program, leaving other vacuum brands to wither and atrophy, unable to gain the attention and prominence held by Roomba on the country’s most popular shopping site.

Amazon has used a range of anti-competitive tactics to secure a commanding position across a variety of home-tech products, all designed to further its dominance of the smart home. The company often sells its Echo smart speakers at a loss, mirroring the predatory pricing strategy it used to sell diapers, its Kindle, and even its Prime Video service in order to drive out rivals and expand its primacy. Amazon might very well employ the same strategy with Roomba. Combine its monopoly retail power with below-cost pricing, and the deal becomes a competition killer.

This merger isn’t just about controlling the robot-vacuum industry, or even about smart-home devices. Owning Roomba would give the world’s most dominant spy-tech maker yet another portal into our homes and lives. It could map where we live, what we own, and what it should be selling to its hundreds of millions of captured customers.

Amazon got its towering place in home tech the same way it is expanding it now—by buying other companies. It bought the voice-assistant start-up Evi Technologies in 2013 to help create what would eventually become Alexa, the voice of Echo and by far the leading smart-speaker voice assistant. Then, to extend its eyes and ears into people’s homes, Amazon bought two start-ups: the camera maker Blink in 2017 and a doorbell company called Ring in 2018. Today, Ring accounts for an estimated 40 percent of all video doorbells installed in America.

These devices have given Amazon incredible access to people’s daily lives. The company has a documented history of leveraging the data its vast home-tech network captures in order to grow—and to expand its monopoly power. For example, Amazon has for years used Alexa’s algorithm to steer customers toward Amazon’s own products. Ring monitors and records every interaction with a customer's doorbell, including every doorbell buzz and every movement in proximity to the outside of the door, and congressional investigators found that “acquiring Ring and Blink was in part to expand and reinforce [Amazon’s] market power for its other business lines.”

Amazon’s quest for consumer data comes with deep and real concerns about the way the company uses the images and sounds its home-tech products capture. It has partnered with police departments across America to get its Ring doorbell installed in neighborhoods, where it is used to surveil communities unknowingly and without consent. Amazon then shares the video footage its doorbells capture with police without a warrant or permission. Its Echo speakers have captured private conversations and shared those with Amazon without the permission of the eavesdropped. (On its website, Amazon says, “On some occasions Alexa may accidentally wake up when the wake word wasn’t spoken, but your Echo device thought it was” and that the company is “constantly improving our wake word detection technology.”)

The latest Roomba models capture information that Amazon, at the moment, doesn’t have access to. iRobot’s new operating system maps the floor plan and contents of the spaces in which it operates. The vacuums are now equipped with a camera so it can respond to commands like “Clean in front of the couch.” But that means it knows what kind of couch you have—and crib, and dog bed, and so on. If the deal goes through, Amazon will too, whether or not you wanted Amazon to know that stuff. (Amazon did not comment on how it would use data collected by Roombas.)

If this deal feels bad and intrusive, that’s because it is. People buy a Roomba because they want something that will clean their floors. Most folks don’t want a spinning, camera-equipped data vacuum taking stock of their home and its contents, then beaming that information back to the most powerful retail monopoly on Earth.

And Amazon’s data sweeps are more than creepy; they’re a roadblock to other companies that might want to jump into the smart-home market. Through its acquisition of Whole Foods, its attempted purchase of One Medical, and other deals, Amazon is positioned to crush new rivals. Every piece of information Amazon collects about people’s lives—what they most want to buy, what questions they most commonly ask, what they keep inside their homes—raises the barrier to fair competition even higher.

Regulators will look at this deal closely, as they should. The direction of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is changing under the leadership of Lina Khan, a critic of monopoly power and Amazon specifically. If the agency sees this deal as I do, Amazon may have to leave the floor-cleaning to someone else.