I’m not sure exactly how much I’ve spent with Amazon in the last year, but it’s a lot. If I buy something online, I’ll probably buy it from Amazon even if it’s slightly cheaper elsewhere. I buy books, MP3s and big-ticket items like computers too. So I guess I have a strong “brand relationship” with Amazon.
Like many people, I’m re-evaluating this relationship after Amazon dropped Wikileaks in an apparent concession to US government pressure (their official statement didn’t impress me much either) and I may stop buying things from them.
But here’s a good question – if you plan on boycotting Amazon for not hosting Wikileaks, why not boycott every firm that doesn’t host Wikileaks? This is my answer, and it’s grounded in Amazon’s ambitions (specifically the Kindle) rather than a general sense of corporate morality.
The Kindle strategy: mediate between reader and book
When Amazon started out, it just sold books. As it grew it started selling lots of other stuff (encountering more than a few UX problems along the way) but books and their readers remained key to its identity, as was affirmed by the launch of the Kindle in 2007.
Before the Kindle, Amazon’s relationship with the reader began with browsing for a new book and ended soon after it arrived. The packaging discarded, the book was opened and Amazon was forgotten: the relationship was now directly between the reader and the book.
With the Kindle, this relationship was to change. Rather than just enabling the book’s purchase, Amazon would remain in the equation while the book was being read. The relationship, instead of being a direct one between reader and book, would – through the Kindle – be mediated by Amazon, who would enjoy a more meaningful connection with the reader.
It’s a great strategy, and well-executed too: the Kindle is a joy to use. But underlying this strategy – and this is where Wikileaks becomes relevant again – is the increased need for trust between Amazon and the reader.
Trust, neutrality, and moral failure
Trust isn’t important when Amazon sells me a book. I need to trust that they won’t rip me off, yes, but that would be illegal – the trust is backed up by law. And once I’ve got the book in my hands, what can Amazon do? They can’t stop me reading it.
In the world of the Kindle, however, trust changes and becomes absolutely essential. This is because, in this transformed relationship where Amazon is the mediator, Amazon can remove books from your Kindle. It can do so remotely, without warning, at its own discretion, even if you paid for them or got them elsewhere. The reader must therefore trust Amazon not to do this. If she doesn’t, her relationship with the written word is no longer free.
When Amazon remotely wiped 1984 and Animal Farm from Kindles in 2009 this trust was damaged. That was due to rights & ownership problems – it wasn’t political, it was commercial. But the Wikileaks incident shows that Amazon will remove content for reasons that are ultimately political.
This doesn’t just damage that trust, it destroys it completely, and with it Amazon’s credibility as an organisation fit to mediate my relationship with the book. What if there was political uproar over a controversial novel, and Amazon was pressurised to remove it from the possession of people who had paid for it? We know now that they’d do it, and the implications are depressing.
In fact they’re so depressing that I feel glad that the Kindle wasn’t invented a century earlier. How much more effective would Soviet suppression of samizdat have been if the Kindle was in widespread use back then? What would have happened to Lolita, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Ulysses, or any of the hundreds of books that were banned and burnt in supposedly less enlightened eras? How much would we have lost?
The banning of Wikileaks raises questions that are particularly sensitive given Amazon’s lofty aspirations. How can you promise to manage someone’s relationship with the written word – and therefore with culture, politics, literature, and arguably thought itself – when you can’t be trusted to remain neutral and impartial? Amazon has to be held to a particular moral standard, and it is this standard it has failed to meet. We were within our rights to expect more.