Amazon's first employee says the company scares him

Key Points
  • Shel Kaphan, who joined Amazon after it was founded in 1994, made his comments in a documentary on PBS' "Frontline."
  • Kaphan said he's proud of his early role in Amazon's history, but the company "scares" him.
  • He added he's in favor of breaking up Amazon, an idea being weighed by U.S. antitrust enforcers and on the campaign trail.
Shel Kaphan
Nikki Kahn | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Amazon's first employee says he's concerned about how big the company has become.

Shel Kaphan, who joined Amazon after it was founded in 1994, gave a rare interview to PBS "Frontline" for its two-hour special, "Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos," which aired on Tuesday. Kaphan was Amazon's chief technology officer and was a key architect of the website.

"I built a substantial part of the early system that allowed them to come into existence, so I feel responsibility because of that," said Kaphan, who left Amazon in 1999. "On one hand, I'm proud what it became, but it also scares me."

Kaphan said Amazon should be broken up, given its size and influence over small businesses' ability to thrive online. It's an idea that's being weighed by U.S. antitrust enforcers and has been brought up on the campaign trail by candidates including Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

"I think the characterization of Amazon as a ruthless competitor is true," Kaphan said. "Under the flag of customer obsession they can do a lot of things which might not be good for people who aren't their customers."

An Amazon spokesperson said the company represents less than 1% of global retail and less than 4% of U.S. retail.

"Amazon's retail business competes in the worldwide market for retail sales," the spokesperson added. "Our competitors include all the other online and brick and mortar stores that people shop at every day."

Several Amazon executives who appeared in the documentary pushed back on the idea that Amazon should be broken up, including the CEO of Amazon's consumer business, Jeff Wilke. Wilke acknowledged that Amazon and "everything that's large in the economy and in society" deserves scrutiny, but stopped short of saying Amazon has dominated industries. He said Amazon competes with a number of companies in retail, such as Walmart, Target, Costco and Alibaba.

"We're in a lot of verticals, yes. There's video and there's commerce, and there's web services. But in every one of them, we have intense competition," Wilke said. "If we were everywhere, that means we're talking about the global economy, not just global retail. It's so vast. We're just — you know, we're a speck."

Little tech companies speak out about Amazon
Little tech companies speak out about Amazon