Pluralistic: Amazon's bestselling "bitter lemon" energy drink was bottled delivery driver piss (20 Oct 2023)

Today's links

An Amazon box on the floor of a delivery van. The van is full of piss.

Amazon's bestselling "bitter lemon" energy drink was bottled delivery driver piss (permalink)

For a brief time this year, the bestselling "bitter lemon drink" on Amazon was "Release Energy," which consisted of the harvested urine of Amazon delivery drivers, rebottled for sale by Catfish UK prankster Oobah Butler in a stunt for a new Channel 4 doc, "The Great Amazon Heist":

Collecting driver piss is surprisingly easy. Amazon, you see, puts its drivers on a quota that makes it impossible for them to drive safely, park conscientiously, or, indeed, fulfill their basic human biological needs. Amazon has long waged war on its employees' kidneys, marking down warehouse workers for "time off task" when they visit the toilets.

As tales of drivers pissing – and shitting! – in their vans multiplied, Amazon took decisive action. The company enacted a strict zero tolerance policy for drivers returning to the depot with bottles of piss in their vans.

That's where Butler comes in: the roads leading to Amazon delivery depots are lined with bottles of piss thrown out of delivery vans by drivers who don't want to lose their jobs, which made harvesting the raw material for "Release Energy" a straightforward matter.

Butler was worried that he wouldn't be able to list his product on Amazon because he didn't have the requisite "food and drinks licensing" certificates, so he listed his drink in Amazon's refillable pump dispenser category. But Amazon's systems detected the mismatch and automatically shifted the product into the drinks section.

Butler enlisted some confederates to place orders for his drink, and it quickly rocketed to the top of Amazon's listings for the category, which led Amazon's recommendation engine to start pushing the item on people who weren't in on the gag. When these orders came in, Butler pulled the plug, but not before an Amazon rep telephoned him to pitch him turning packaging, shipping and fulfillment over to Amazon:

The Release Energy prank was just one stunt Butler pulled for his doc; he also went undercover at an Amazon warehouse, during a period when Amazon hired an extra 1,000 workers for its warehouses in Coventry, UK, in a successful bid to dilute pro-union sentiment in his workforce in advance of a key union vote:

Butler's stint as an Amazon warehouse worker only lasted a couple of days, ending when Amazon recognized him and fired him.

The contrast between Amazon's ability to detect an undercover reporter and its inability to spot bottles of piss being marketed as bitter lemon energy drink says it all, really. Corporations like Amazon hire vast armies of "threat intelligence" creeps who LARP at being CIA superspies, subjecting employees and activists to intense and often illegal surveillance.

But while Amazon's defensive might is laser-focused on the threat of labor organizers and documentarians, the company can't figure out that one of its bestselling products is bottles of its tormented drivers' own urine.

In the USA, the FTC is suing Amazon for its monopolistic tactics, arguing that the company has found ways to raise prices and reduce quality by trapping manufacturers and sellers with its logistics operation, taking $0.45-$0.51 out of every dollar they earn and forcing them to raise prices at all retailers:

The Release Energy stunt shows where Amazon's priorities are. Not only did Release Energy get listed on Amazon without any quality checks, the company actually nudged it into a category where it was more likely to be consumed by a person. The only notice the company took of Release Energy was in its logistics and manufacturing department – the part of the business that extracts the monopoly rents at issue in the FTC case – which tracked Butler down in order to sell him these services.

The drivers whose piss Butler collected don't work directly for Amazon, they work for a Delivery Service Partner. These DSPs are victims of a pyramid scheme that Amazon set up. DSP operators lease vans and pay to have them skinned in Amazon livery and studded with Amazon sensors. They take out long-term leases on depots, and hire drivers who dress in Amazon uniforms. Their drivers are minutely monitored by Amazon, down to the movements of their eyeballs.

But none of this is "Amazon" – it's all run by an "entrepreneur," whom Amazon can cut loose without notice, leaving them with unfairly terminated employees, outstanding workers' comp claims, a fleet of Amazon-skinned vehicles and unbreakable facilities leases:

Speaking to Wired, Amazon denied that it forces its drivers to piss in bottles, but Butler clearly catches a DSP dispatcher telling drivers "If you pee in a bottle and leave it [in the vehicle], you will get a point for that" – that is, the part you get punished for isn't the peeing, it's the leaving.

Amazon's defense against the FTC is that it spares no effort to keep its marketplace safe. As Amazon spokesperson James Drummond says, they use "industry-leading tools to prevent genuinely unsafe products being listed." But the only industry-leading tools in evidence are tools to bust unions and screw suppliers.

In her landmark Yale Law Review paper, "Amazon's Antitrust Paradox," FTC Chair Lina Khan makes a brilliant argument that Amazon's alleged benefits to "consumers" are temporary at best, illusory at worst:

In Butler's documentary, Khan's hypothesis is thoroughly validated: here's a company extracting hundreds of billions from merchants who raise prices to compensate, and those monopoly rents are "invested" in union-busting and countermeasures against investigative journalists, while the tools to keep you from accidentally getting a bottle of piss in the mail are laughably primitive.

Truly, Amazon is the apex predator of the platform era:

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago NSA hacked email of Mexican president and drug-war reformers

#10yrsago DSMV reviewed as a work of dystopian literature

#10yrsago HOWTO braid your long hair into a Gimli beard

#5yrsago After killing disaster-recovery rules, Ajit Pai can’t understand why carriers aren’t helping hurricane-hit Florida

#5yrsago Security researchers identify “fingerprints” in 3D printed objects that can be used to trace their manufacturing

#5yrsago All the economists who told the FTC we shouldn’t break up Big Tech are paid by Big Tech

#5yrsago US Customs is seizing refurbished Apple batteries and calling them “counterfeits”

#5yrsago “Smart home” companies refuse to say whether law enforcement is using your gadgets to spy on you

#5yrsago On-trend in Asia: Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign logo

#1yrago It was all downhill after the Cuecat

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS JAN 2025

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS FEB 2024

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

Latest podcast: The Lost Cause (excerpt)
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest books:

Upcoming books:

  • The Lost Cause: a post-Green New Deal eco-topian novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias, Tor Books, November 2023

  • The Bezzle: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about prison-tech and other grifts, Tor Books, February 2024

  • Picks and Shovels: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about the heroic era of the PC, Tor Books, February 2025

  • Unauthorized Bread: a graphic novel adapted from my novella about refugees, toasters and DRM, FirstSecond, 2025

This work – excluding any serialized fiction – is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Medium (no ads, paywalled):

(Latest Medium column: "A Major Defeat For Technofeudalism: We euthanized some rentiers"

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla