April 14, 2009

Amazon's gone bad.

Less than a week before Canada Book Week starts, and little over a week until World Book and Copyright Day, America's largest online retailer of books have demonstrated through - what they themselves have termed - "ham-fisted" actions how our freedom to read what we chose continues to be impacted by the arrival of supermassive book retailers. Amazon.com found itself accused of censorship and homophobia after the company removed titles tagged as 'adult' from its online charts, stripping over 57.000 books of their sales rankings - effectively removing them from the company's main product search.

What particularly raised ire was the seemingly arbitrary application of the 'adult' tag to titles with gay themes. Although several children's books as well as titles on sexual health, biographies, and classics were also suddenly at odds with Amazon's "consideration of [their] entire customer base," straight smut was allowed to remain. A tome of Playboy centerfolds (tagged as 'photography') was okay, Heather has Two Mommies and Stephen Fry's autobiography weren't.

Given that little over half of Amazon's revenue is generated in the US, it's perhaps not surprising that the story didn't receive much attention outside the anglosphere. But the company's product searches were affected on all six of the additional, separate websites Amazon operates globally, and the issue itself appears to date back to at least February - ironically the month Freedom to Read Week was celebrated here in Canada. The debate that's followed, mainly online, has unfortunately largely reduced the problem to a gay rights issue.

Amazon's not a a library or public service; they're a business with a right to stock whatever they want. But it's a right that becomes problematic when a bookseller dominates the market like Amazon does. Any titles they, and the other three or four major players, decide not to stock become harder to find, and - by extension - to publish. Supermassive booksellers can also exert pressure on publishers (as Amazon has done in the past) to offer greater discounts, and interfere with publishers direct sales, thereby undercutting the profitability - and ultimately, the existence - of small publishers in particular. It's censorship by proxy.

Herein lies the much larger problem, one mostly ignored by the righteous cries of indignation rapidly raised in response to Amazon's "technical issue." Ultimately, Amazon's business allegedly involves selling stuff, not points of view. So who oversees the tagging, the adding of keywords or categories by customers? Is tagging useful and necessary, or merely an opportunity for certain customers to 'report' titles they deem 'offensive'? That type of tagging is a typical American pastime, one Amazon founder and chairman Jeffrey Bezos and his fellow bozos surely are familiar with.

Like most conservative societies, America's obsessed with labeling everything it considers foreign and frightening. Why else provide boxes for indicating race on official forms, such as driver's license applications? The people most frequently 'offended' by literature that doesn't fit their particularly narrow-minded and parochial outlook have demonstrated quite well in the past that they're capable of speaking for themselves. There's no need for online retailers to back them up, or provide them with tools that help propagate their hateful, self-righteous views. It's certainly not the business of private corporations or their individual customers to determine what others should be able to read.

This debacle is partially the result of online retailers' fierce competition to create a purposefully 'user-driven' online-shopping experience, providing exhaustive amounts of information about every piece of goods - including reviews and comments from other customers. Which, as in Amazon's case, opens the online catalogue to practically anyone who may or may not have something useful to add about a specific item, and who - more often than not - have an axe to grind. As 'pioneering' as Amazon's customer reviews may have appeared once, they've certainly caused the company trouble before (specifically over author's anonymously giving themselves glowing reviews in order to boost sales.)

In other words, this isn't "a glitch," as Amazon stated in a lame, late effort to stem the tide of online fury, but a consequence of how the system is set up. Add a myriad of tags in order to make sure that whatever the customer searches for, Amazon will have something to sell, and "mistakes" like these are bound to arise. After all, Amazon is a rather typical American corporation, started not for the love of books, but as an attempt to cash in on the commercialisation of the Internet. Amazon is all about making money - a fact starkly illustrated by the company's campaigns of intimidation and layoffs to avoid unionisation of its labour force.

However, as commercially driven, flawed, and cynical as Amazon's tag structure is, it can offer search options for those genuinely interested in a specific category to rival the indexes of most national and public libraries. After a fashion, it lives up to Mr Bezos stated aim "to make every book available – the good, the bad, and the ugly...to let truth loose." Hopefully, Amazon will take this opportunity to steer clear of that typically American ambition of providing a moral compass for the masses, evaluate what information it displays online, and stick to what it does best: providing the widest possible selection, and selling what sells.

In the meantime, here's a handy tip for all you budding reactionary crusaders out there: the chance of encountering something that offends your sensibilities online are a lot smaller if you don't search for it in the first place.

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