Amazon shareholders vote down limits on facial recognition software

Amazon shareholders vote down limits on facial recognition software
© Getty Images

Amazon shareholders on Wednesday voted down two proposals to limit the deployment of the company's controversial facial recognition software, dubbed Rekognition.

The two shareholder proposals – one calling for Amazon to stop selling Rekognition to government agencies until it concludes the technology does not facilitate civil rights violations, and another that would have commissioned an independent study about the software – were widely expected to be voted down.

Over fifty percent of Amazon's shareholders have to vote for proposals in order for them to pass. The votes came after a concerted push by civil liberties and activist groups who argued the technology is too risky to be used by the government and poses enormous privacy and racial bias concerns. 

ADVERTISEMENT

An Amazon spokeswoman confirmed to The Hill that the shareholder proposals on facial recognition technology did not pass, adding that more details on the votes will be made available later this week.

Amazon's board previously said it was against the non-binding proposals, making it unlikely that they would pass, but activists have argued the fact that they were brought to the table shows the concerns around facial recognition technology are becoming more serious.  

The first shareholder proposal would have forced Amazon to stop selling Rekognition unless its board determined that the technology does not violate civil liberties and civil rights. The second would have authorized a study on the civil rights and civil liberties ramifications Rekognition can pose. 

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has led the push against widespread deployment of facial recognition technology and has published research showing that Rekognition has high rates of misidentification, in a statement called the vote on the proposal itself "an embarrassment for Amazon's leadership team." 

"It demonstrates shareholders do not have confidence that company executives are properly understanding or addressing the civil and human rights impacts of its role in facilitating pervasive government surveillance," Shankar Narayan, the director of the ACLU of Washington's technology and liberty project, said in a statement. "While we have yet to see the exact breakdown of the vote, this shareholder intervention should serve as a wake-up call for the company to reckon with the real harms of face surveillance and to change course."

The shareholder vote was announced at the tail end of a hearing on facial recognition technology by the House Oversight Committee, where lawmakers on both sides of the aisle signaled an interest in passing legislation to regulate the sensitive product. 

"I just got word that the shareholders did not end up passing a ban on the sale of Rekognition," Rep. Jimmy GomezJimmy GomezHere are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment Lawmakers call for 'time out' on facial recognition tech Amazon shareholders vote down limits on facial recognition software MORE (D-Calif.) said at the hearing. "That just means that it's more important that Congress acts."

Leaders of the committee, including Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsGOP Oversight report says Interior head met with group tied to former clients Nadler asks other House chairs to provide records that would help panel in making impeachment decision Nikki Haley voices 'complete support' for Pence MORE (D-Md.) and ranking member Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanTrump knocks news of CNN hiring ex-FBI official McCabe Democratic Women's Caucus calls for investigation into Epstein plea deal DOJ releases notes from official Bruce Ohr's Russia probe interviews MORE (D-Ohio) said they will both throw their weight behind passing legislation on the issue, praising it as an opportunity for bipartisan agreement. 

Amazon said none of the shareholder proposals voted on passed on Wednesday, including one that would have asked the company to clarify its plan to tackle climate change.

The company's CEO Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosThe Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape Making space exploration cool again Sanders campaign to launch own 'newsletter with scoops' MORE is the company's largest Amazon shareholder with about 16 percent of its stock. He is also the chairman of the board. 

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) earlier this year rejected Amazon's attempts to squash the shareholder proposals on Rekognition. 

"The risks of facial recognition technology are clear – the SEC twice sided with shareholders on these proposals and against Amazon management," Nadira Narine, the senior program director of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Researchers, said in a statement.  

"Though the company reported that all the resolutions failed -- the vote shares could still be significant: we will know what level of support they received in as little as a few hours to a few days when the results are released by the company," she added. 

Updated at 2:20 p.m.