David R. Henderson  

The Amazon Boycott: Blaming a Victim

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Antiwar.com, where I write a monthly column, has decided to boycott Amazon. Their reason is that Amazon banished WikiLeaks from its servers shortly after a staffer at the U.S. Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Senator Joe Lieberman, called Amazon and asked for an explanation. And now regular Antiwar.com columnist Justin Raimondo defends Antiwar.com's decision and ends his defense with this:

The controversy over WikiLeaks is a defining issue, one that separates the liberty-lovers from the lickspittles.

Being called a lickspittle by Justin Raimondo is hardly going to make me lose sleep: as anyone knows who reads him regularly, as I do, his quota of name-calling ran out about twenty years ago. But even if I worried about being called names, I would say what I'm going to say: the boycott of Amazon is a bad idea. Bob Murphy has given a strong argument for not boycotting and so I won't repeat it here. I will just highlight two things from Murphy's article and then deal with one new piece of information that Raimondo presents.

First highlight:

Why single out Amazon for the boycott? To repeat, at least Amazon initially hosted WikiLeaks; this actually surprised me when I heard it, since I thought major corporations wouldn't want to touch Assange's website with a ten-foot pole in this environment.

It is strange. Amazon had the courage to host WikiLeaks and then it gets blamed for buckling under government pressure? This makes no sense, especially since the boycotters are likely to take their business to companies that never supported WikiLeaks.

Second highlight from Murphy:

The boycotters seem quite sure that this episode will send a signal to major corporations that they shouldn't leave critics of the government high and dry. But this might actually backfire, and be akin to raising the minimum wage, thinking it helps unskilled workers. Specifically, the lesson to major corporations might be: "Whoa, let's not get ourselves involved with any dubious groups or individuals, in case the government cracks down and makes us look like the bad guys."

I'm willing to go further: I think that, to the extent the boycott succeeds, this is exactly how many managers of big corporations will think, those, that is, who weren't already thinking this way.

Murphy also identifies the real villain here: Joe Lieberman. Any manager of a U.S. company, large or small, in the year 2010, knows that when he/she gets a phone call from a staffer from a Senate committee with "Homeland Security" in its name, he/she had better pay attention. This explains the one new fact Raimondo presents: that Amazon, rather than announcing that it buckled under pressure, instead said that it denied access to WikiLeaks because WikiLeaks was presenting stolen documents. But the timing shows that this can't be it. If those documents were stolen, they were just as stolen in the days that Amazon did host WikiLeaks. So I won't defend Amazon's honesty, although I totally understand why they would tell a lie. But I won't boycott Amazon. If I do anything about this, it will be to go after, in some way that's legal, the megalomaniacal Senator Joe Lieberman.

The simple fact is that we live in a society whose governments are so big, so powerful, so intrusive, and so arbitrary, that we have to be very careful in dealing with them. That's true whether we're talking about a U.S. Senator, a local policeman, a city planner, or a TSA agent. Different people will draw different lines about how to respond to government abuses. But boycotting of one of government's many victims? No way.



COMMENTS (14 to date)
Jim Wise writes:

You're missing one point here -- Amazon's hosting service is self-service; you can set up hosting with a credit card and a few clicks of a web site, with no intervention on Amazon's side.

Thus arguing whether Amazon was brave to initially host Wikileaks (or whether their argument to stop doing so made any more sense when they did so than it did when they started hosted Wikileaks) misses the point that Amazon almost certainly did not choose to start hosting Wikileaks in the first place.

Whether people boycott Amazon's web store in response to this, I would certainly expect it to give anyone thinking of using their hosting services for a journalistic enterprise pause...

Eric Hanneken writes:

You don't need to talk to anyone who works for Amazon.com to set up an Amazon Web Services account, and host your web site on their servers. If Amazon was unaware of WikiLeaks' presence until Lieberman's aide called, then no change of heart would be necessary to explain their behavior.

Scott Miller writes:

David, you make an excellent point. Boycotting Amazon is pointless. If Amazon knew that they were hosting Wikileaks then it makes them look valiant for hosting them in the first place. But what about the reverse signalling? Would hosting Wikileaks in the first place have earned them right wing ire and loss of business?

Ella writes:

One blog I read spent about 8 hours complaining about Amazon hosting WikiLeaks, had commenters bragging about canceling their Amazon prime accounts, and basically excoriating Amazon for committing teh TREASON!!11!!111!!!! You know, until Amazon closed the site down. (The complaints started 4 hours before their corporate offices even opened for business.)

So, yes, some right-wingers definitely had their heads up their collective rumps over this, which was dumb in two ways:

1) As Jim said, you can sign up automatically for an Amazon hosting account; it doesn't require any vetting or background checks or even an email or phone call.

2) Unlike his previous leaks with troop locations and the names of translators and spies for soldiers (i.e., leaks that would get innocent people killed), Assange only released information that would be embarrassing to the US regime and a few other governments. Since when did "not embarrassing the government" become a guiding principle to anyone with, well, principles?

Hyena writes:

I don't see why I'd boycott WikiLeaks anyway. It's not like I refuse to speak to people who don't donate to the same charities or vote like I do.

Amazon gives me free shipping and aggressively discounts their inventory. I mean, they have some severe market power and never really exercise it.

Hyena writes:

Err, boycott because of WikiLeaks.

NormD writes:

Hmmmmmmmm

You oppose war and, by extension, support diplomacy.

WikiLeaks makes diplomacy harder and thus war more likely.

Hmmmmmmmm

Terry Hulsey writes:

Mr Henderson,
Your "first highlight" is moot because the principle at issue is muddled by Amazon's unadministered sign-up policy.
Your "second highlight" would forbid any principled boycott of any corporation. From your point of view, corporations should steadfastly avoid all association with any customers who might be carrying dangerous political baggage; your view celebrates corporate cowardice as a virtue. Worse than that: You imply that cowardice is the correct response for anyone when confronted by an "arbitrary" and "intrusive" government. After all, you imply, we're all victims; who could blame any us for running with our tail between our legs?
On the other hand, Justin's courageous stand meets the ultimate validation of a moral act: He suffers a loss by following it -- specifically, some $10K in annual referrals to Amazon. But this need not be a permanent loss: Google will be offering its own competing online bookstore in a few months. It would be a fitting judgment on Amazon if its inevitable losses to the new competitor were linked to its Quisling behavior in the case of WikiLeaks.

CBBB writes:

Wikileaks doesn't make diplomacy harder that's just a canard. The idea that the State Department and the Pentagon are opposing forces is laughable. The State Department and Pentagon often work hand-in-hand to try to expand American military power abroad.
Example: Colin Powell at the UN making the fabricated case for the invasion of Iraq.

Mark Brady writes:

NormD suggests that if someone were to oppose war, then by extension, he would support diplomacy. He further argues that WikiLeaks makes diplomacy harder and thus war more likely.

I suggest that war and diplomacy are not always substitutes, indeed they are usually complements, and can be used together for nefarious purposes.

So even if Wikileaks were to make diplomacy harder, it would not follow that WikiLeaks would necessarily make war more likely.

In short, I suggest NormD has posited a false dichotomy.

Rad Capitalist writes:

It easy to be principled when you don't have million of dollars on the line. Amazon reports to its shareholders, and I'm pretty sure they don't want Amazon getting involved in activites that puts them in the government's crosshairs. We all know what the Feds are capable of, begining with a show and tell committee hearing and ending with relentless IRS audits...

Dave writes:

So Raimondo likes the idea of boycotting Amazon.

That's strange. He has a book available on the site.

There's even a Justin Raimondo 'page'

Do as I...

Yngvar writes:

If Wikileaks released Prime Minister Putin's private collection of child porn, I very much doubt they would find any willing hosts, even if it exposed the man for what he truly is and in the name of free speech.

So its all av matter of what grade illegality of the documents, and what level of anti-Americanism.

tp writes:

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