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On Amazon, The Web and Freedom to Read


Richard Nash blogs brilliantly on Amazon’s recent “ham fisted” issues with Gay, Lesbian, Sexual and other “Adult” Content books here.

Richard is of course, pretty much right on target.

As I write this piece, a few days after the Easter weekend, I note that now it appears that most of the gay and lesbian books have had their rankings restored on Amazon, but a number of erotica and overtly sexual titles, straight or otherwise remain "de-ranked."

Isn’t the issue here not literally the choices that Amazon is making about what books to promote or not promote in this way, to “hide” from audiences somehow, but rather, it is the fact that they are making choices based on content that is the problem?

When there were hundreds of independent booksellers, many of whom were in the book business for literary, cultural and political reasons, their individual decisions about what to buy created a more or less healthy ecosystem that included opportunities for many books reflecting minority lifestyles, sometimes unpopular or challenging in their content, to be available to a reading broad and various reading public.

In that environment, whether any given store chose to carry or promote erotica, adult literature, gay romance, or radical political books, though important to their own communities, it was not critical to the health of culture, or of intellectual discourse, or to the working lives of writers and to their readers’ freedom not of access.

But in our current environment, where ironically, all books are theoretically available more readily through Amazon, bn.com and other online retailers where shelf space is virtual and inventory has no cost (other than bandwidth), we now begin to realize that cultural power is concentrated as never before and in ways that are complicated and potentially damaging now than ever.

For example, is it plausible to imagine an online advertising environment that did not utilize Google?  Can there be bookselling online without reference to Amazon?  If music does not appear on iTunes, by the choice of the creator or the record label, is it truly available to be heard?

These and many other online "businesses" are defacto monopolies that thrive because of the Internet.   Are they really private companies or are they more like public utilities?   

Why don’t we start looking at them as "chartered" for the benefit of the public they serve?  This would enable us to introduce the notion of "public good" in the way we think about their provision of goods and services to the general public.  Especially when we think about access to information and ideas, and freedom of speech, this seems increasingly appropriate when a company like Amazon fails in its commitment to supporting those ideals.

Posted by David Wilk on 04/15 at 05:06 PM
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