In aviation, the black box is a source of knowledge: a receptacle of crucial data that might help investigators understand catastrophe. In technology, a black box is the absence of knowledge: a catchall term describing an algorithmic system with mechanics its creators can’t—or won’t—explain. Algorithms, in this telling, are unknowable, uncontrollable, and independent of human oversight, even as they promote extremist content, make decisions affecting our health, or act in potential violation of antitrust law.
In investigative reports and international courts, Amazon, Google, and other tech platforms have been accused of tweaking their search algorithms to boost their own profits and sidestep antitrust regulations. Each company denies interfering with its respective search algorithm, and because of the murky mechanics of how search works, proving the allegations is nearly impossible.
Amazon allegedly adjusted its search algorithm to prioritize private-label products, which earn the company a higher profit, over items from competitors, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday. According to the Journal, Amazon reworked its search tool so that when results are ordered by relevance, items that are more profitable to Amazon appear ahead of items that might be more popular or relevant, but would make it less money. Some of these products include the “Amazon Basics” line, with products such as paper towels, batteries, and clothing. Amazon’s private-label business represents only 1 percent of its overall retail sales, but engineers said they were pressured by the private-label sales team to emphasize these products in search. The unnamed engineers who told the Journal about the change said they protested it, but were ignored.