As regular readers of this column know, writing about stupid Amazon tricks is just about a full-time job. But lately I've been lying low. Three


Don't make them come in there

As regular readers of this column know, writing about stupid Amazon tricks is just about a full-time job. But lately I've been lying low. Three outages in two weeks? None of them were very long, and better early in the holiday season than late. Cracking down on unionization efforts? Old news for faithful readers, and besides I'm still rapt in contemplation of the Blethen family's strike-busting tactics. (Note to Times ownership: Calling striking workers at home to intimidate them? Did you think no one would find out? These are JOURNALISTS, for God's sake. They TELL people stuff. This is what they DO. First the Dub-ya endorsement, now this.) Cheesy men's-choir holiday commercials? Hey, I love those guys, and with the sock puppet permanently impounded they're all I've got to look forward to between West Wing segments.

Yes, we're practically Amazon- huggers lately. And then Patty Smith had to screw it up.

Seattle's a great town for public radio, which means lots of folks are listening when stupid stuff gets said without commercial interruption. I was listening and so were a number of other folks just the other day when someone said something stupid on KUOW. The subject was privacy, and the speaker—Ms. Smith—was from Amazon.

As you may remember, back in September Amazon announced a few new twists on their privacy policy. Those changes—including one that reserved the right for the company to sell off customers' information in the event that the company or a portion thereof is bankrupted or sold—got the attention of consumer-protection groups such as EPIC, Junkbusters, and Privacy International. Last week those guys filed a letter with the Federal Trade Commission asking that they investigate both and for deceptive and unfair trade practices under Section 5 of the FTC Act, violation of UK and European Union data-protection laws, and flagrant abuse of consumer trust.

Enter KUOW, clearing an hour's worth of space to examine the issue. After spending some time with Jason Catlett, the head of Junkbusters, the host turned to Smith for Amazon's side of the story.

To sum Smith's smug shtick up, it's all Jason's fault for scaring people, or if it's not his fault it's the media's fault for not being as smart as Amazon about What People Want, and in any case the government says they don't have to do anything more than what they're doing, so nyah. Let me run that last bit by you again: A representative of Amazon, the company upon whose willing shoulders rides the mantle of Dot-Commerce, says that they don't have to do anything more than the absolute minimum currently required by the government, even if customers and consumer-watchdog agencies are screaming.

Yeah, guys, that's right—the government would NEVER decide to pass stringent privacy protection laws just because voters and lobbyists ask them to look into the problem. In fact, the government is so happy with all the flak they've gotten for Carnivore and other privacy-violating surveillance schemes that they wouldn't dream of redirecting public attention by blaming dot-coms for being the real privacy threat. No grandstanding congressperson would turn this into a holy war, just the way they didn't do it with cyberporn and the Communications Decency Act back in '95.

Let me say that again, without the sarcasm, so the appropriate Amazonians get the message. Don't be stupid. If you fuck this up, the government will be more than happy to take privacy matters into their own hands. And the odds are good that dot-com businesses won't like the results. It is imperative to your interests that dot-coms lead the way on this—damn, even Bill Gates knows that, and I didn't hear a single thing come out of last week's Microsoft SafeNet 2000 privacy conference that hasn't been said earlier and often and elsewhere. If business doesn't represent consumer wishes, those wishes will be represented, and by people not necessarily well-disposed to your way of thinking. (And Ms. Smith, please—all that talk of the "unlikely" event of an Amazon meltdown doesn't inspire blind confidence. Unlikely is when IBM or AT&T folds, not a 5-year-old dot-com.)

Meanwhile, one hates to be too hard on Patty Smith, who was just following orders on a local radio show—it is, after all, the holidays, and with any luck she's about to get herself shipped to North Dakota to pack boxes on the tundra for a few weeks. I think she'd be great at it, but maybe management wouldn't agree with me. After all, based on last week's comments we can tell she's a big believer in expending no more than an absolute minimum of effort on behalf of Amazon's customers.

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