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Saturday, December 4, 2010

To Boycott or Not to Boycott Amazon



Amazon.com's most recent call to leave WikiLeaks in the dark is no doubt a paramount disappointment to libertarians, anarchists, anarcho-capitalists, left-libertarians, agorists, laissez-farists, and lovers of liberty of all stripes who have done business with the online retailer in the past. I certainly have done business with Amazon, buying books from them in the past. Their selection of products and services, no doubt, have been optimal and still proceed to remain that way on the front of the company's website. And yes, admittedly so, they do have low prices, and they do provide a supply of goods and services for the masses at large.

Putting those points aside, Amazon has undoubtedly put itself in a very volatile and very precarious situation. After the company gave WikiLeaks the boot, a number of libertarians objected to Amazon's response to the State's threats toward it. In response to Amazon's decision, libertarians like Eric Garris (the head of Antiwar.com) called for a boycott of Amazon for its wrongheaded immediate choice. On a blog post entitled "Boycott Amazon" (which is posted here in its entirety) dated December 1, Garris writes:

Earlier today, Amazon.com took down the cloud servers that were being used by WikiLeaks to serve their site. One of the products Amazon sells is space on their cloud servers at a very competitive rate. Thousands of websites, including WikiLeaks, use their service.

Amazon.com gave no notice to WikiLeaks. Normally, in an ethical and legal business relationship, notice is given when contracts are terminated to allow for smooth transition. In fact, if WikiLeaks had chosen to terminate the contract with Amazon, they would have been required to give 30 days notice.

Amazon.com gave no such notice, they just unplugged the servers. As a result, WikiLeaks was down for several hours today.

Why did they do this? Amazon.com got a call from Senator Joe Lieberman who threatened to start a boycott. Other officials reportedly leaned on Amazon. I can understand Amazon’s fear of the government, but that is no excuse to unethically target a customer without notice.

In the past year, Antiwar.com has received about $10,000 from Amazon.com for referrals on the sale of books and merchandise. We cannot continue to profit from or deal with Amazon.com. We are removing the Amazon ads and book widgets from our website, and urge other supporters of WikiLeaks to join the boycott.


Garris is spot-on. Amazon epically failed to furnish a written notice to WikiLeaks, as it would need to do to any customers who purchases a service from the firm. Usually, a company would have to provide to its customers a cancellation notice in writing of its service, whether the customer asked to cancel the service or not. In this case, Amazon, given that it entered into a legally-binding contract with WikiLeaks, neglected to do just that. Although Lieberman threatened to launch a boycott of Amazon (including a federal inquiry into the company's well-established rapport with WikiLeaks), it does not justify and rationalize the business's politically-coerced decision to sever its ties with WL without notice. This is an unethical business practice that should be frowned upon, and it is disheartening, disappointing, and troubling that numerous libertarians are automatically ganging up on those libertarians for excoriating the retailer's immoral and unethical business practice, especially when the company made the risky choice to enter in a formal agreement with WL in the first place.

On Antiwar.com's site, Daniel Ellsberg, the famed U.S. military official who leaked out the Pentagon Papers which documented the U.S. federal government's lies about the reason why the United States went to war with Vietnam and the time line of events that led to the build-up of the war, wasted no time jumping onto the Antiwar.com Blog and, in a blog post entitled "Daniel Ellsberg Says Boycott Amazon," writes an open letter to Amazon's Customer Service:

Open letter to Amazon.com Customer Service:

December 2, 2010

I’m disgusted by Amazon’s cowardice and servility in abruptly terminating today its hosting of the Wikileaks website, in the face of threats from Senator Joe Lieberman and other Congressional right-wingers. I want no further association with any company that encourages legislative and executive officials to aspire to China’s control of information and deterrence of whistle-blowing.

For the last several years, I’ve been spending over $100 a month on new and used books from Amazon. That’s over. I ask Amazon to terminate immediately my membership in Amazon Prime and my Amazon credit card and account, to delete my contact and credit information from their files and to send me no more notices.

I understand that many other regular customers feel as I do and are responding the same way. Good: the broader and more immediate the boycott, the better. I hope that these others encourage their contact lists to do likewise and to let Amazon know exactly why they’re shifting their business. I’ve asked friends today to suggest alternatives, and I’ll be exploring service from Powell’s Books, Half-Price Books, Biblio and others.

So far Amazon has spared itself the further embarrassment of trying to explain its action openly. This would be a good time for Amazon insiders who know and perhaps can document the political pressures that were brought to bear–and the details of the hasty kowtowing by their bosses–to leak that information. They can send it to Wikileaks (now on servers outside the US), to mainstream journalists or bloggers, or perhaps to sites like antiwar.com that have now appropriately ended their book-purchasing association with Amazon.

Yours (no longer),
Daniel Ellsberg


Ellsberg is fundamentally spot-on here. Amazon's actions are "cowardly" and laden with "servility," simply because it didn't remotely bother to stand up to the State and its thugs, never minding the fact that Lieberman and his goons didn't promise not to go after them legally and intended to act on and carry out their threats simply by asking the company the business relationship that it had with WikiLeaks. The fact that it threw WL under the bus by simply ending its business agreement with a much-hated news organization in the manner it pursued and failed to provide WL an explanation as to why their site was being pulled is an indication that it panicked too easily and that it neither gave WL a chance to pull their files off the company's servers nor a choice to end its relationship with Amazon and act accordingly after the fact. Yes, there are those who will wave the pro-Amazon flag, saying once and for all that the firm was in a tough predicament, and it was forced to choose between having its business taken down by the State or walking away from a business deal it had made with a customer. Certainly they are free to make that point, and Amazon certainly reserves the right to accept or reject doing business with any customer and treat its customers accordingly in any way it sees fit. That said, that talking point shouldn't be construed to mean or tacitly insinuate that Amazon was IN the right for rejecting to do business with an organization like WikiLeaks. There is in reality no middle ground in this context or any other context known in existence.

(By the way, it should be known that Lew Rockwell, Michael S. Rozoff, Stephan Kinsella, David Kramer, Butler Shaffer, and other Rockwellers at the Lew Rockwell Blog are foolishly siding with Amazon's decision on the issue, even while they tacitly mock those who are permanently refusing to do business with the retailer.)

On December 1, the British newspaper The Guardian reported this in part:

The US struck its first blow against WikiLeaks after Amazon.com pulled the plug on hosting the whistleblowing website in reaction to heavy political pressure.

The company announced it was cutting WikiLeaks off yesterday only 24 hours after being contacted by the staff of Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate's committee on homeland security.

WikiLeaks expressed disappointment with Amazon, and insisted it was a breach of freedom of speech as enshrined in the US constitution's first amendment. The organisation, in a message sent via Twitter, said if Amazon was "so uncomfortable with the first amendment, they should get out of the business of selling books."

While freedom of speech is a sensitive issue in the US, scope for a full-blown row is limited, given that Democrats and Republicans will largely applaud Amazon's move. Previously a fully fledged Democrat, Lieberman won re-election to the Senate in 2006 as an independent; his status is that of an independent, albeit with continued close associations with the Democratic party's Senate contingent.

The question is whether he was acting on his own or pressed to do so by the Obama administration, and how much pressure was applied to Amazon.


Skip Oliva wrote in response in part on the Ludwig von Mises Institute website:

In response, I’ve seen a few libertarians who are now calling for their own boycott of Amazon — 'I won’t be shopping there this holiday season,' etc. — to protest the company’s capitulation. I’m sorry, but that’s childish and stupid. First of all, you’re adopting the very tactics the state used against Amazon. Second, what you’re basically saying is that you’re going to let statists like Joe Lieberman decide where you will and won’t shop. That’s asinine. Third, it’s one thing to boycott a firm that actively colludes with the state or, say, lobbies for political favors; Amazon was a victim here, not a belligerent.


My response to Oliva is pure and simple. Who is he to tell these libertarians (who are very likely the left-libertarian types) whether they can refuse to shop or refuse to not shop at Amazon? He calls the decision "childish and stupid." Ok, Mr. Oliva, where were you when the Bush administration directed the hands of the National Security Agency (NSA) to strong-arm telecommunication carriers like AT&T Corp., Verizon, and BellSouth into handing over private customer call data to these thugs as part of its wiretapping program, all in the name to monitor domestic calls by instituting an international and domestic call database program despite their promises to the contrary?

Did you object to those phone carriers willingness to assist the Bush administration in that wiretapping scheme by boycotting their services or did you call anyone in the Liberty movement "childish and stupid" for voluntarily refusing to do business with them because those poor carriers were just "victims" of the State's strong-arming? More to the point, have you forgotten that telephone carrier Quest Communications refused to join in on the spying of Americans, resulting in the company being the lone holdout in joining in the scheme despite the NSA threatening the powers-that-be at the firm that they would cancel their government contracts with them (which led to many libertarians and civil libertarians praising them for their wise decision)? They didn't cave in, despite the threats and calls made to them by the State, and they protected their clients' privacy. What do you say to that?

The only ultimate price Quest paid was that its former CEO Joseph Nacchio was convicted on 19 counts of violating insider trading laws in 2007, which resulted in him being incarcerated in 2009 for six years. Why? Because his employees and he refused to kowtow to the demands of the statists who wanted his customer call records. Was Quest wrong to not cave in to the demands of the State? The company paid a steep price for this, but to him and his team it was well worth the risk. Were you cheering him on for opposing the mandate, knowing full well that he was risking the loss of his company, or did you think he was "childish and stupid" for doing what he felt was the right thing?

I don't know about you, but the answer is this: Nacchio did the right thing. The government would have gone after Quest anyway EVEN IF it cooperated, simply by auditing its tax records, its books, and what not. As a corporation, a company is under the direct thumb of the State. It's under a huge microscope. You and I know this to be true. If one digit in its SEC filings is off, the armed goons of the State can pursue the firm, and we both know this. When you incorporate your firm by inserting into the clutches of the State (making it an arm of the creature), you create an unholy alliance with the State. Once your firm goes public, it has access to the State's guarantees, privileges, special regulatory and tax breaks, and subsidies that it otherwise wouldn't have if it were still a privately-held enterprise. After all, corporations are not a free market specimen but rather a spawn of the State, contrary to what libertarians like Stephan Kinsella, Walter Block, J.H. Huebert, and Brad Edmonds of LvMI assert.

Of course, Oliva also erroneously asserts this Neanderthalic point, which should be construed as an insult to left-libertarians and the entire movement in its entirety:

First of all, you’re adopting the very tactics the state used against Amazon.


Sorry, but that's just flat-out wrong. What the State employed against Amazon was the threat of violence if it didn't cooperate. What the left-libertarians did (and are still doing) is voluntary, non-violent against Amazon. Simply put, we choose not to do business with Amazon.

And, please, drop the hypocrisy here. Your side of the pro-Liberty aisle boycotts companies all the time in private for all sorts of reasons: you didn't like the service, you didn't like how the business was treating its customers and employees, you didn't like the tone and attitude of the managers, you didn't like the quality, prices, and appearance of the products, the location of the particular company, the limited selection of products and services, the unethical business practices, etc. Whatever the personal reasons you have and why you didn't like the company, you stopped shopping there. Whether you see it or not, you sent messages to those companies that you weren't happy with the customer service, the products, the attitudes of the employees and the service they provided you, and so on. It's called freedom of association. We consumers choose which companies to do business with and which ones we don't want to do business with, and we're a fickle bunch. No one in an authoritarian manner tells us where we can and cannot shop. We all have our own reasons for doing what we do, rightly or wrongly.

And, let's make ourselves crystal clear: the State is still going after Amazon, despite the company's cooperation with Lieberman and his goons. Here's a case in point from a sentence in Lieberman's statement to the press:

I will be asking Amazon about the extent of its relationship with Wikileaks and what it and other web service providers will do in the future to ensure that their services are not used to distribute stolen, classified information.' [Emphasis added.]


Did Lieberman say he would back off from pursuing Amazon after it pulled WikiLeaks' account? No, it didn't. He said that he would be asking -- meaning he would vehemently pursue a criminal investigation against Amazon in a governmental and legal fashion -- Amazon what its relationship with WikiLeaks was. That means the State will be investigating Amazon and having its armed cronies meeting with and interrogating the powers-that-be at the Amazon offices, demanding to know why it had established a rapport with WikiLeaks in the first place. If you think the State will back off now, then you're either deluded or naive or both.

Here's the third point Oliva makes:

Second, what you’re basically saying is that you’re going to let statists like Joe Lieberman decide where you will and won’t shop.


Again, wrong. We're telling Joe Lieberman and Amazon that we're not doing business with a company and the thuggish State that can dictate to us who we can and cannot support and what organizations we can and cannot financially and politically support. By supporting Amazon, we would be essentially saying that what Amazon did was ethically right and supporting the company would be an automatic endorsement of what Lieberman and Amazon did by default. Oliva can spin this any way he wants, but he doesn't get to speak for everyone in the movement, dictate to the left-libertarians and other opponents of Amazon's actions what they are allowed to and not allowed to do, and so on.

Who is he to tell those libertarians who they can do and not do business with? It's none of his business anyway. What does he care if they refuse to cater to Amazon again? There are other firms from which individuals can purchase products and services that are comparable to what Amazon sells. Granted, they are not as well known as Amazon, but so what? There's Overstock.com, which sells the same products and similar services like Amazon. The real free market is on the Web, and there are plenty of alternatives to Amazon to choose from. One must know where to find them if they want the best deals, and more often than those other firms offer better deals than Amazon.

Third, it’s one thing to boycott a firm that actively colludes with the state or, say, lobbies for political favors; Amazon was a victim here, not a belligerent.


It is true that Amazon didn't "actively collude with the State or lobby for political favors," but that's not the point, Skip, and you very well know it. Amazon made its choice, and it was the wrong one indeed. Now it will have to live with the consequences of its decision, whether the firm likes it or not. You, the Rockwellers and other libertarians who want to condemn our side for opposing Amazon's actions keep saying that Amazon "was a victim here." That statement alone is nothing but intellectually dishonest pabulum. Amazon was not a "victim" here. It is disappointing to see libertarians in that camp playing the victim card on Amazon's behalf, politically speaking. The real victim here is WikiLeaks, because it was never contacted by Amazon with a statement, saying that it longer wanted its customer's business in the first place. How do I figure? Let me explain.

Amazon knew fully well what WikiLeaks was and what kind of a business deal it was getting into from the beginning. The company knew (or at least had to have known) for months that WikiLeaks was depised and wanted by the American Empire for releasing the classified videos and documents on its website. After all, the website had been and still continues to be a source of much great controversy, even months after being a topic of widely-held public discussion.

Are you telling me that the powers-that-be at Amazon didn't know what they were walking into the second they inked the deal with WikiLeaks to host its website onto the firm's own servers? Are you also telling me that they didn't somehow know that they were taking a huge risk for having WikiLeaks in their system and that they were inviting the federal government to come after them, which the State in fact did? If anything, they set themselves up for that likelihood in the first place. Perhaps they didn't think it through before they inked the deal with WL, but it was a risky business to which they agreed. It's not as if they weren't aware of the potential risks and probability of their decision to have WL as a customer. And, despite all that, they ended up probed by the State. They invited the investigation and threats of the State the second the word got out. Perhaps they didn't mean for it to happen, but that's irrelevant. (I'm not really buying that argument anyway, but I'm certain someone is bound to be making it, so it's fair to use it in a theoretical sense.)

Amazon was faced with a choice: either fight for its customer WikiLeaks, tell the State to stick it, fight for its survival, and still be persecuted by the State's goons, or drop its client, fight for its survival, and still be persecuted by the State and its goons. It was going to lose either way. It was presented with a "damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't" scenario. If I were Amazon and I had to pick one of those items on the menu, I'd choose "damned-if-you-don't." I'd still lose, I'd still be persecuted by Amazon, but at least I tried to fight back, even if the odds were stacked against me. At least I would have preserved my dignity as a company, even if it were an uphill battle for me.

KN@PPSTER's Tom Knapp incidentally isn't buying into Amazon's story over the WikiLeaks affair in the form of a statement to the press as reported by The Wall Street Journal. What is Amazon claiming? It's undeniably pathetic, amusing, theatrical, and illogical at the same time:

Amazon.com Inc. Inc. says it stopped hosting WikiLeaks from its Web servers this week because the controversial group violated its terms of service.

It was 'inaccurate' to claim that pressure from the U.S. government or large-scale attacks by hackers caused the company to discontinue its service of WikiLeaks, said Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener in a statement.

Responding to pressure from members of Congress, Amazon stopped hosting WikiLeaks on its servers Wednesday. Geoff Fowler explains to Stacey Delo why Amazon was hosting the sensitive documents and whether Amazon will see a backlash for pulling them.

Earlier in the week, WikiLeaks had turned to Amazon's Web services after its servers in Sweden were hit by computer attacks. On Tuesday, staff from Sen. Joe Lieberman's office said they contacted Amazon to ask why the Seattle-based company was providing Web hosting services to the group, which recently released a trove of sensitive U.S. State Department documents.

Amazon said its decision was based on the fact that WikiLeaks broke its rules. Amazon, which rents Web infrastructure on a self-service basis, 'does not pre-screen its customers' but does reserve the right to discontinue service if its terms aren't followed, said Mr. Herdener.

WikiLeaks 'doesn't own or otherwise control all the rights to this classified content,' one of the stipulations of Amazon's contractual terms, he said.

Mr. Herdener said that Amazon's terms of service also require that content 'will not cause injury to any person or entity.' Yet he said 'it is not credible that the extraordinary volume of 250,000 classified documents that WikiLeaks is publishing could have been carefully redacted in such a way as to ensure that they weren't putting innocent people in jeopardy.'


First, Amazon's claim is false, because the State DID go after it. Putting the entire onus on WikiLeaks by saying that it had violated its terms of service agreement because WL as an organization had in its possession declassified government files that were protected by IP laws (which is not true) and saying that media group did not "have a right" to those files are just utterly ludicrous. Why did Amazon approve of WL's account if that were true? Oh wait, Amazon says that it doesn't pre-screen its prospective clients before it approves them. Well, that's its fault, not WikiLeaks'. Amazon staff members could have reviewed WikiLeak's application before approving them if that were the case, but they didn't. It is highly unfair to blame WikiLeaks for that, not to mention extremely retarded.

(Thankfully, Knapp, who had originally awaited an explanation from the firm, made his temporary boycott permanent. Kudos to him for doing that.)

Even Wendy McElroy's husband Brad objected to Amazon's decision, saying that it was a bad call on the company's part, urging everyone to boycott it and announcing that he would be joining it as well.

Here's Amazon's lying, deceptive denial of the State coercing it to remove WikiLeaks from its servers:

There have been reports that a government inquiry prompted us not to serve WikiLeaks any longer. That is inaccurate.

There have also been reports that it was prompted by massive DDOS attacks. That too is inaccurate. There were indeed large-scale DDOS attacks, but they were successfully defended against.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) rents computer infrastructure on a self-service basis. AWS does not pre-screen its customers, but it does have terms of service that must be followed. WikiLeaks was not following them. There were several parts they were violating. For example, our terms of service state that 'you represent and warrant that you own or otherwise control all of the rights to the content… that use of the content you supply does not violate this policy and will not cause injury to any person or entity.' It’s clear that WikiLeaks doesn’t own or otherwise control all the rights to this classified content. Further, it is not credible that the extraordinary volume of 250,000 classified documents that WikiLeaks is publishing could have been carefully redacted in such a way as to ensure that they weren’t putting innocent people in jeopardy. Human rights organizations have in fact written to WikiLeaks asking them to exercise caution and not release the names or identities of human rights defenders who might be persecuted by their governments.

We’ve been running AWS for over four years and have hundreds of thousands of customers storing all kinds of data on AWS. Some of this data is controversial, and that’s perfectly fine. But, when companies or people go about securing and storing large quantities of data that isn’t rightfully theirs, and publishing this data without ensuring it won’t injure others, it’s a violation of our terms of service, and folks need to go operate elsewhere.

We look forward to continuing to serve our AWS customers and are excited about several new things we have coming your way in the next few months.

— Amazon Web Services


Yeah, right, Amazon. Uh huh. Sure. (More will be explored in another blog post at a later time.)

Even Brad isn't swallowing Amazon's line of reasoning here.

All in all, it is up to the individual to decide whether he or she should continue to do business with Amazon.com. No one -- not even Wendy McElroy, her husband Brad, Tom Knapp, and/or I -- can force one to not purchase goods and services from Amazon or purchase anything from any other alternative out there. One must make the decisions based on how much he or she values Amazon's service despite all this evidence against the company. But I do strongly urge people to think about it before they even consider buying from Amazon, whether they are first-time customers or returning customers.

No one says that Amazon doesn't have the right to terminate its relationship with its customers any way it wishes; it does. Again, that doesn't by default translate into meaning that it's made the right choice.

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