Amazon.com As Censor?
Onnesha Roychoudhuri has an article in this month’s Boston Review on the power that Amazon and other large retailers wield over the publishing industry. Because a handful of large retail outlets (Amazon, Google, Border’s, Barnes and Noble, Walmart, and Target) sell a large proportion of the books in the United States, they have the potential to determine what books get read. And with Amazon leading the e-book market, its power is only growing. Amazon has not been shy about using this power, as Roychoudhuri, points out to essentially blackmail publishers into giving them bigger discounts and delisting books from publishers that do not give in to their demands.
And it’s not only books. Amazon also hosts web sites. It recently pulled the plug on the Wikileaks web pages that were hosted on Amazon’s servers.1 There are also indications that the firm removed gay and lesbian titles from its ranking schemes because of political pressure. (Amazon says it was a “glitch,” but never explained what happened.) Amazon’s history suggests that it is distinctly uninterested in freedom of information and puts its own profits above other concerns. Yes, companies like Amazon operate to make money and I don’t begrudge them that. But they also operate within a larger community and have responsibility for the communal welfare in addition to their responsibility to return a profit to shareholders. And in the long run, Amazon’s profits will be better served by a robust and vibrant information society than by one that is shuttered and channeled.
This is something to be very concerned about. Increasingly, the general public’s access to information is becoming funneled through a handful of media companies. We need to enforce a broader public sensibility that certain for-profit firms operate as something of a public trust, with responsibility for maintaining free flow of information.
Within the past few weeks, friends of mine have advocated that we demand Amazon remove a self-published e-book that advocated pedophilia from its “shelves” and that Apple remove an iTunes application from its store from an anti-gay political group.2 Now, the book on pedophilia appears to be a truly awful book, and I have no truck with Chuck Colson and his anti-gay group, but in both cases there is no evidence that either Amazon or Apple consciously decided to place these products in their store; people can automatically add their products to these stores provided they meet certain technical conditions. Should we really be trying to force Amazon and Apple to act as censors? But what happens when the political tables are turned. Amazon has deranked gay and lesbian titles in the past. Do we ask Amazon to delist Mein Kampf because it promotes antisemitism? What happens when Apple removes a MoveOn.org application from its iStore? There is a difference between protesting a corporation’s own political actions and protesting a corporation because it provides an media outlet that does not discriminate based on content, even if particular groups, even a vast majority, find that content objectionable.
Yes, companies have the right to not sell or provide outlets for material. It’s one thing for a store, small or large, with limited shelf space to limit the material it makes available or to focus on a particular market niche. But in the case of large media companies like Amazon and Apple, is this really a good idea? Isn’t it better to say they are a common carrier and all should have equal access to making their material available through these outlets? And when a bookstore grows so large that it can influence what books publishers actually produce, it takes on an obligation to carry all books, not just the ones that they get at deep discount.
1The justification for the removal was that Wikileaks did not “own” the documents and there may have been concern that Amazon would be liable under espionage laws. But the decision in New York Times, Co. v. United States in the Pentagon Papers affair is pretty clear, unless the publisher plays a role in creating the leak the government can’t restrict publication of classified material. While the law is murky on whether Wikileaks as an organization is culpable under US espionage law, it is pretty clear that Amazon, in the role of ISP, is not. If the documents were copyrighted, Amazon would be obligated to pull them down, but US government documents cannot be copyrighted.
2The iTunes application was free. Apple was making no money from it and had no stake in its success or failure. It was merely providing a media outlet like it does for all its application developers.
(Disclaimer: I am an Amazon Associate and make a modest amount of money (just enough to pay the operating costs of this site) through money generated by people clicking on links to books for sale at the store and through Google advertising.)
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton