A few months ago, I posted here about the dangers I saw in the Amazon Kindle and the rise of digital publishingâ€”namely that as we move our books and other media from a printed to a digital format, we increase the odds that they can be altered or even deleted without our consent and possibly without our knowledge.
Itâ€™s a bit of a paranoid thesis, but I think it moved closer to reality today when it was revealed that Amazon had â€œreclassifiedâ€ a whole slew of books dealing with LGBT issuesâ€”from gay romances to academic works on the impact of homophobia to Heather has Two Mommiesâ€”as â€œadultâ€ and thus removing them from some searches, sales rankings and bestseller lists on Amazon.com.
That Amazon chose to reclassify books with any sort of gay themeâ€”be it academic, literary, or journalisticâ€”but not those with much more explicit heterosexual content is blatantly homophobic and certainly worthy of discussion. But what Iâ€™m more concerned about is the creeping corporate control over the flow of information and ideas.
In a world of printed media, the consumer holds at least some of the power. Once a book is disseminated into bookstores, libraries and homes, itâ€™s a herculean if not impossible task for a single entityâ€”the executive suite at Amazon, sayâ€”to move, reclassify, alter or censor it in one fell swoop. As weâ€™ve seen from Amazon, though, in a digital world, titles can be removed wholesale from searches, rankings, etc. quietly and overnight.
Given that, itâ€™s not too big of a stretch to imagine a day when a handful of big-name sites like Amazon dominate the distribution of literatureâ€”on devices like the Kindle, they already do. Say these companies, for whatever reason, decide that a particular titleâ€”a political manifesto, maybe, or a book on radical Islamâ€”isnâ€™t â€œsuitableâ€ for their audience. Whatâ€™s to stop them from quietly removing the offending title from search results, from rankings, or just taking it down altogether?
Of course, itâ€™s always been up to retailers to decide which books to sell and which not to sell. But the digitization of books gives way to an unprecedented centralization; Instead of hundreds of thousands of bricks and mortar booksellers in America, there might be maybe three or four online outlets. Do we really want to trust to the discretion of a handful of corporations that kind of power over the flow of information?
Itâ€™s important to note that Amazon never announced this change. Much like the Facebook TOS changes that caused such a stir back in February, they justâ€¦ did it. Quietly. So that a book that would have shown up in your search results on Friday would have been absent on Monday. No announcement, no opt-in, no empty space on the bookshelf, almost like it was never there.