Over the weekend the internet was abuzz with news that Amazon had stopped selling books published by Macmillan. By Sunday evening Macmillan titles were back on Amazon's virtual shelves, but the dispute between the world's largest bookseller and a major publisher was another reminder that Amazon can cut off your access to books any time it wants.
According to the New York Times, publishers want Amazon to raise the price of Kindle ebooks, and Amazon, faced with competition from Apple's new iBooks venture, which includes Macmillan titles, wouldn't go along.
Cutting off Macmillan was a temporary move, and the whole thing sounds like one of those cable-systems-dropping-cable-channels-because-of-pricing disputes. Even so, it's one thing for viewers to spend a week or two without their "Law and Order" reruns while new licensing gets worked out, but it seems more like censorship than haggling when Amazon, which holds close to a monopoly on bookselling, shuts off access to books, if only for a little while.
Especially since Amazon's track record in the we-control-what-you-read department hasn't been so spotless. Not so long ago Amazon stopped giving sales rank figures for books on homosexuality. That measure resulted in titles ranging from the prurient to the scientific disappearing from customer searches. It produced an #amazonfail Twitter storm, and the company quickly backed down, saying the whole thing was a misunderstanding.
But soon after that, Amazon repossessed electronic copies of George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984 from Kindles in the U.S., reminding us that the company doesn't actually sell Kindle content to its customers, it merely licenses the books with the option of taking them back. Even though all Kindle users had read and fully understood the fine print before clicking the "Agree" on their Kindle ebook account, Amazon had to apologize for its big-brother tactics and promise not to do that again.
The internet is a wonderful place, one that brings us information and opinion, shopping and entertainment. It provides social contact and a place to go when we want to be alone. And while content on the web comes and goes, the web itself is relatively stable. Its pathways are constructed with redundancies and backups so that if one node fails, data can be rerouted through another and still reach its destination. In theory, the web is also relatively open: given access and a little knowledge, we can all create internet content as well as consume it.
But this latest #amazonfail underscores the fact that significant parts of the net have become the exclusive property of large corporations that can manipulate the data stream or turn it off any time they like. Plus, their sites could fail or get hacked. And, as the misadventures of Google and Yahoo in China have shown, it wouldn't be the first time if they succumbed to political as well as economic pressure.
It turns out that even while the internet offers free and unfettered access to anyone with a laptop, a wifi card, and a place to sit at Starbucks, a small group of highly-visible companies -- household names like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and Wikipedia, among others -- direct what we can and can't do in cyberspace.
Amazon's tiff with Macmillan got resolved. It had to if both parties wanted to sell books, and during the brief suspension Amazon still offered Macmillan titles through its partners (not all of them promise free shipping, however). But Amazon has shown that it can really put a dent in our reading just by tweaking corporate policy -- and that power can have significant ramifications for writers as well as readers.
It gets worse. What if Google or Yahoo were to decide they wouldn't show us certain websites when we searched a topic? Or -- whatever you think about the online encyclopedia's reliability -- what if Wikipedia shut down? How would we find out anything at all? What if Facebook itself unfriended us? Or Zappos stopped selling shoes? It would be unthinkable, the end of civilization as we know it.
Perhaps not. The very flexibility of the internet suggests that monopolies don't last all that long (remember the IBM PC? IBM doesn't make pc's any more; WordStar is long gone; and no one uses Friendster), and start-ups can quickly take us in new, unimagined directions. And yet the trend toward the monopolization of information is troubling.
Here is Macmillan's statement about the Amazon suspension. A day after Amazon suspended sales of Macmillan titles, the bookseller agreed to the publisher's request to raise the price of Macmillan ebooks. Here is Amazon's statement reinstating Macmillan sales. In it, Amazon's Kindle Team claims that "Kindle is a business for Amazon, and it is also a mission. We never expected it to be easy!"
The good news is that the data stream has been unfrozen, for now. But that doesn't change the fact that Amazon remains a private company that is in a position to influence the accessibility of reading materials. And it doesn't change the fact that what Amazon calls the Kindle "store" offers not a bookstore, where customers can buy books, but a form of the old subscription-only lending library, where customers are actually renting their ebooks, not buying them. Kindle books can't be loaned to friends, sold, or even donated to a rummage sale. Instead, they remain the property of Amazon, which can recall them if it chooses to, or block user access to books they've already paid for.
Amazon's dropping of Macmillan, temporary though it was, reminds us that it's not desirable for a small group of people, responsible not to the public but to stockholders, to control our reading and writing -- in that sense, at least, 2010 is the new 1984.