Amazon and Wanda Sykes Think Spying on You Is Hilarious

Next Monday, Sept. 26, will mark the premier of “Ring Nation,” which its producers describe as “a half-hour, studio-based series that gives audiences a daily dose of life's unpredictable, heartwarming and hilarious viral videos shared by people from their video doorbells, smart home cameras and more.”

The light tone is reflected in the choice of host, comedian Wanda Sykes. The videos will specifically come from Ring brand video devices, and the Amazon-owned company is a co-producer of the show.

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Critics, however, are arguing the show is anything but a low-stakes revamp of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Technology advocacy groups Fight for the Future (FFF) and Media Justice instead allege that “Ring Nation” is “normalizing and promoting Amazon’s harmful network of surveillance cameras,” and that Ring’s Neighbors app “amplifies racial profiling and further subjects communities of color to racist policing and criminalization.”

Amazon acquired Ring for a reported $1.2 to $1.8 billion in 2018 as part of its larger strategic push into “smart home” devices and commercialized data gathering. Unlike traditional security systems, Ring doorbell cameras upload their video to Amazon’s servers. The full extent of Amazon’s use of those videos is unclear, but it is known that Amazon can and has accessed and shared them with police departments without a warrant or user consent. Ring has refused to even disclose how many users’ videos it has shared without permission. Installing a Ring camera on your own property, in short, borders on giving Amazon permission to do whatever it wants with the footage.

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FFF and Media Justice have launched a campaign for the show’s cancellation. IndieWire reports that a broader coalition of 40 activist groups have now signed on to the campaign, including the generally pro-video citizen journalism nonprofit WITNESS and the UCLA Center for Race and Digital Justice.

Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey (D) has also decried the show, saying, “Amazon appears to be producing an outright advertisement for its own Ring products and masking it as entertainment … The Ring platform has too often made over-policing and over-surveillance a real and pressing problem for America’s neighborhoods, and attempts to normalize these problems are no laughing matter.”

Instead of “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” “Ring Nation” might be much better compared to the 1990s poverty and brutality exploitation touchstone “Cops.” The show is co-produced by MGM subsidiary Big Fish Entertainment, formerly behind an even more exploitative riff on the “Cops” model called “LivePD,” which was, not coincidentally, cancelled in the summer of 2020 when George Floyd’s murder by police showed Americans (for really the first time ever, we swear) that police brutality existed. “Cops,” incredibly, is still in production, but only airs internationally, not in the U.S. The brutality of American policing, it seems, is still good entertainment in other countries, but all too real at home.

On a similar note, “Ring Nation” producers say the show is intended for syndication – that is, primarily terrestrial broadcast. There is no indication it will appear on Amazon’s streaming platform, suggesting that Amazon may be working to expand Ring’s market by targeting the show to lower-income viewers who aren’t yet Amazon customers – while hiding it from more-connected audiences such as the coastal media.

This makes Wanda Sykes’ involvement particularly objectionable. It seems obvious she’s being leveraged to mute objections from the Black communities most harmed by mass surveillance and police state paranoia. Organizers of the “Cancel Ring Nation” campaign point out that “footage from Ring cameras was used to track and monitor protesters who took to the streets, exercising their First Amendment rights, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder … Racial profiling and racist policing are core components of Ring’s business model, which profits off fear.”

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That is, Ring sells more surveillance devices when audiences are more afraid of their neighbors. So while the “Ring Nation” press announcement leans on wedding fails and cute animals caught on Ring cameras, you can bet the show will also traffic in “suspicious” characters “caught in the act” and other forms of fear mongering.

Shows like “Cops” are no longer palatable to American audiences because the U.S. policing agenda has been shown to be about serving the powerful and protecting them from the weak – especially the weakest of all. American police have killed 129 children across the U.S. since 2015, according to a database maintained by the Washington Post, a number worth remembering when Ring tries to sell itself with footage of cute trick-or-treaters.

Actual cops have squandered the deference once accorded them by society through corruption and incompetence. Amazon and founder Jeff Bezos would like to offer a friendlier vision of public safety – one based not on human relationships or community solidarity, but on artificial intelligence and omnipresent spying.

At least a camera can’t shoot your kid, right?