Matt Gaetz urges Jeff Bezos to cut ties with SPLC over AmazonSmile bans

Amazon, the second-largest U.S. based corporate employer in the world, lays off several hundreds of employees. | Reuters/Charles Patiau

Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida urged Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos to sever the company's ties with the Southern Poverty Law Center during the House Judiciary Subcommittee's hearing on antitrust Wednesday. 

During the hearing on Capitol Hill with the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, Gaetz pressed Bezos over his company’s relationship with the SPLC, which it partners with to decide which organizations can receive donations through the AmazonSmile program.

Some conservative and Christian organizations have been prohibited from participating in AmazonSmile, while atheist organizations and Planned Parenthood are allowed to receive donations through the program. 

“I am not here accusing you as someone who would ever traffic in hate, but it seems you have empowered people who do. I’m particularly talking about the Southern Poverty Law Center,” Gaetz told Bezos at the hearing that followed a yearlong investigation by the committee into the four biggest tech companies in the U.S.

Amazon, Gaetz asserted, allows the SPLC to “dictate who can receive donations on your AmazonSmile platform.” Listing organizations the SPLC has labeled as “extremists,” Gaetz named several faith-based organizations, including Catholic Family News, Catholic Family Ministries, the American Family Association, the Family Research Council, and the Jewish Defense League.

The first four of the aforementioned groups were designated as hate groups because of their opposition to same-sex marriage. Similarly, renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson was also listed on the SPLC's "extremist files" for subscribing to traditional Christian values on issues of sexuality and marriage. Carson was listed next to white supremacists, Neo-Confederates and anti-Semites. His name was finally removed in February 2015, with apology, following immense criticism. 

“I’m just wondering why you would place your confidence in a group that seems to be so out-of-step and seems to take mainstream Christian doctrine and label it as hate,” Gaetz asked.

In response to Gaetz's question, Bezos first discussed how the AmazonSmile program works, explaining that it “allows customers to designate a certain fraction of their purchases to go to charity that we then pay for. We use the Southern Poverty Law Center data to say which charities are extremist organizations.”

“But why?" questioned Gaetz. "Since they’re calling Catholics and these Jewish groups hateful groups, why would you trust them?”

“I’m going to acknowledge this is an imperfect system,” Bezos replied. “I would love suggestions on … better or additional sources.”

Gaetz replied by suggesting that Amazon "divorce [itself] from the SPLC.”

Although Bezos indicated an openness to using other sources other than the SPLC in determining which groups can participate in AmazonSmile, he did not commit to cutting ties with the organization.

In another exchange between Gaetz and Bezos later on in the hearing, the congressman once again brought up Amazon’s relationship with the SPLC. Gaetz asked Bezos whether he agreed with the SPLC’s previous characterization of Carson, the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, as an “extremist,” and Bezos said he did not.

When Gaetz again asked why Amazon “would partner with a group that labels Carson as someone worthy of an extremist watchlist,” Bezos explained that his company needs “to have some source of data to use” to weed out actual extremist groups. 

“I would like a better source if we could get it,” Bezos added.

After Gaetz indicated that he was pleased that Bezos recognized “the infirmities of the Southern Poverty Law Center,” he asked Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg if he agreed with the characterization of Carson as an extremist. After Zuckerberg indicated that he disagreed with that characterization, Gaetz asked, “why would you trust the people who think he is?” Zuckerberg followed up by asserting that he didn't know the details of Facebook’s relationship with the SPLC.

Over the past few years, Amazon has blocked several charity organizations from the AmazonSmile program because the SPLC attached the hate group label to them. These charities include D. James Kennedy Ministries, the Family Research Council and the religious liberty law firm Alliance Defending Freedom.

In response to its banishment from the AmazonSmile program, D. James Kennedy Ministries filed a defamation lawsuit against both the SPLC and Amazon. Attorney David Gibbs III, who represented the ministry, warned of a world “where churches are banned from the internet, churches are banned from services, (and) Amazon won’t deliver to churches” if his client did not emerge victorious from the lawsuit.

The fact that only right-leaning groups seem to get extra scrutiny from Amazon raises the appearance of a double standard. As Heritage Foundation president Kay Coles James explained in a Washington Times op-ed, “Amazon customers can use the AmazonSmile program to donate a portion of each purchase to left-leaning organizations such as Planned Parenthood, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and the Center for American Progress.”

Coles James also noted that shareholders at Amazon “defeated a resolution that would have ended the use of the SPLC’s defamatory list” when determining which charities to include as part of AmazonSmile.

She was referring to a resolution “requesting a report on viewpoint discrimination” that Amazon shareholders, at the urge of the board of directors, voted down. The report would have evaluated “the range of risks and costs associated with discriminating against different social, political, and religious viewpoints.”

Should Bezos decide to "divorce" Amazon from the SPLC, as Gaetz suggested, his company would not be the first tech giant to do so. Last year, Twitter stopped using the SPLC as “one of its safety partners” in its effort to “prevent abuse, harassment, and bullying.” Twitter’s decision to cut ties with the SPLC came at a time when the organization grappled with allegations that it promoted a toxic workplace culture.

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