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Should Amazon censor books that peddle ‘disinformation’?

Amazon has a QAnon problem, according to a new report in the European edition of Politico. The website analysed hundreds of books sold on Amazon and promoted by the e-commerce monopoly’s algorithms and found about 100 books written by QAnon cranks. There are also reportedly more than 80 books promoting conspiracy theories related to the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines.

In case you haven’t heard, QAnon maintains that the United States and thus much of the world is covertly run by a gang of satanic, blood-swigging pedophiles (including all Democrats) and that Donald Trump is fighting to save the nation from their clutches. This idea has gained quite a bit of traction over the past few years, spreading far beyond America’s borders much like the coronavirus spread out from Wuhan, China. Needless to say, QAnoners wouldn’t pass your standard PPSR check.

Unlike Facebook and YouTube, Amazon has not yet moved to censor QAnon content on its platform. That seems to me to be something for which they ought to be applauded rather than condemned—after all, free speech only matters if it’s available to everyone, not just those who express views with which we agree (Joe Stalin had no problem with free speech for purveyors of Soviet propaganda). But Politico—and I’m sure it’s not alone here—implies that Amazon needs to get with the program and ramp up its censorship practices.

Of course, Amazon already bans plenty of books, just not enough to satisfy the mass media raging appetite for censorship. Even Facebook, the digital world’s leading censor, is said to be too tolerant of speech that “offends.” The censorship enthusiasts won’t quit until everybody is muzzled—including themselves.

Politico spoke to Ciaran O’Connor, described as a “disinformation researcher,” who said that “Amazon is falling short by allowing people to promote these conspiracy theories” and by providing “online influencers with an infrastructure to monetize content and material directly linked to disinformation.”

Okay, but who gets to declare what is and isn’t real information? Ciaran O’Conner? Jeff Bezos? The US government? Are you prepared to let someone else determine whether you’re allowed to read a book? Considering Amazon’s utter domination of the online book market (several of the “alternatives,” e.g. Abe Books, are actually owned by Amazon), this goes way beyond a private company exercising its right not to stock certain books. Amazon, in all of its monopolistic glory, has the power to simply erase a book, and an author, from public visibility. If you think that’s a good thing, you’re very confused.

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US government investigating how 9 social media companies collect and use data

The Federal Trade Commission, which enforces US antitrust and consumer protection laws, has issued orders to nine social media companies demanding information about how and for what purposes they collect and store user data. The FTC is also wants to know about the companies’ advertising and user engagement practices, specifically as they relate to child and adolescent users.

The list of targeted companies is a rogues gallery of digital malefactors: Amazon, ByteDance (owner of TikTok), Discord, Facebook, Reddit, Snap, Twitter, WhatsApp, and YouTube. They have 45 days to respond to the order. I’m not sure, but I don’t believe that any of them have 1300 numbers.

On its webpage, the FTC writes that the objective is to gain a fuller understanding of:

  • how social media and video streaming services collect, use, track, estimate, or derive personal and demographic information;
  • how they determine which ads and other content are shown to consumers;
  • whether they apply algorithms or data analytics to personal information;
  • how they measure, promote, and research user engagement; and
  • how their practices affect children and teens.

“The FTC wants to understand how business models influence what Americans hear and see, with whom they talk, and what information they share,” explained the FTC in a press statement. “And the FTC wants to better understand the financial incentives of social media and video streaming services.”

As CNBC reports, there’s a clause in the FTC Act that enables the FTC to conduct wide-reaching probes that are separate from law enforcement. These are known as “6(b) studies.” The FTC carried one out earlier this year in which it reviewed various takeovers by some of the major US monopolies, namely, Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft.

Of course, Bill Gates’ Microsoft was the subject of a major antitrust lawsuit in 2001. In that case, Microsoft was confirmed as a corporate outlaw operating in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. Now Facebook finds itself faced with a similar lawsuit filed just this month by the FTC along with 48 attorneys general. In that suit, Facebook is alleged to have taken over Instagram and WhatsApp after determining that, if left alone, they could pose a threat to Facebook’s hegemony.

Thus, Facebook is accused of unlawfully crushing competition and subsequently harming consumers by limiting their range of options, particularly with regard to privacy. Facebook plans to use the fact that the FTC approved its takeovers of Instagram and WhatsApp as the main pillar of its defense.