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Cory Doctorow on 2022-07-07

Let’s Make Amazon Into a Dumb Pipe

Amazon

Downtrodden peasant: We should improve society somewhat.

Mr Gotcha: Yet you participate in society, curious! I am very intelligent. -Matt Bors, The Nib

I like supporting local retail for shopping whenever possible. But I will not shame people for buying from Amazon the magic markers they use to write “Break up Bezos’ power” on a big poster they parade outside their state attorney general’s office. -Zephyr Teachout, Break ’Em Up

Here’s a dirty secret of the antitrust movement: Amazon is very convenient!

It’s not just that they have a lot of inventory and make it easy to get things shipped to your door quickly and efficiently. It’s also that their predatory pricing has finished off much of the retail that survived Walmart.

“Voting with your wallet” is a dubious occupation at best, but it’s actually counterproductive if you find yourself driving or phoning around for hours, looking for local merchants to buy things from. That’s time you could be spending pursuing structural changes to our society’s structural problems, or just relaxing with a book so you’ll have the energy to pursue those structural changes later.

But what if buying local was as easy as shopping at Amazon? What if you could buy local while shopping on Amazon?

I got this idea from Library Extension, a browser plugin that notices if you’re looking at a book on Amazon and checks to see whether it’s available for checkout at your local library.

Library Extension/Amazon

If the book is available to borrow at your public library, the extension shoves down Amazon’s “Add to Cart” button and draws a box with buttons to reserve that title at any of the local libraries that have it on the shelf.

This is basically awesome. It acknowledges that Amazon’s catalog, search, recommendations and reviews are useful to readers —and lets readers commodify all that stuff, treat it as infrastructure for discovering books to check out of your local library.

This is possible because books have standard identifiers: the ubiquitous ISBN. It’s easy for a plugin to recognize an ISBN when it sees it, and it’s easy for that plugin to look up the ISBN in another database.

In theory there’s no reason this has to be limited to checking books out of your library. You could just as easily write an extension that replaces Amazon’s “Add to Cart” button with a “Buy this on Bookshop.org” button. That’s the cool thing about unique identifiers — they’re great for cross-referencing.

Why stop there?

Amazon set out to become the “Everything Store” and they’ve basically succeeded. Almost anything you could care to buy has a unique identifier in Amazon’s system , the ASIN code that you find on every product page and in every Amazon link.

Amazon

These ASINs correspond to unique identifiers — sometimes but not always represented as Universal Product Codes — in the inventory management systems that your local merchants use (inventory management software, like other digital businesses, is heavily concentrated, so your local retailers are probably using one of a handful of these).

If a co-operative were to write modules that converted between ASINs and the inventory codes used by common inventory management systems, and offer this as a plug-in to common inventory management systems, then you could run a plugin that let you shop on Amazon…but that automatically replaced the Amazon “Add to Cart” button with a button to order the product from one of your local merchants.

There are plenty of reasons to use this beyond wanting to keep your money in the community — for example, you might need a tool right now and be looking to pick it up from a local merchant.

Where I live, in Burbank, California, we are blessed with a lot of great merchants, including DIY Center, a small, family owned chain of giant, amazing hardware stores. Our local DIY is the largest independent hardware store west of the Mississippi and it’s got lumber and lighting and fixtures and everything else, including a slightly surly store cat. I really love shopping at DIY Center.

But sometimes when I’m pressed for time, I don’t want to play Go Fish with DIY, whose inventory, vast as it is, is not infinite. If there’s a specific thing I need — say, a new filter for my home’s HVAC — I’d much rather get it at DIY Center than Amazon, but if DIY Center doesn’t have it, I’ll probably end up buying it from Amazon.

If DIY Center’s inventory could be accessed while I browsed Amazon, I could opportunistically discover when anything I was contemplating buying from Amazon was available down the road, and spent my money with a great family-owned neighborhood business.

I’m saying we should convert Amazon to a “dumb pipe” — a back-end utility that we use to find products and services from places that aren’t Amazon.

For years, local merchants complained that their customers were “show-rooming” them: wandering their shelves to make sure the thing they were about to buy on Amazon suited their needs, then whipping out their phones and buying the goods on Amazon. I’m saying we should turn Amazon into the showroom: hijack its organization, reviews and recommendation algorithm to help us spend money locally.

Is this legal? Well, I’m not a lawyer, but…

Your web-browser is yours. When you voluntarily install a plugin to change the page display, that’s your business, whether it’s an ad-blocker, an accessibility plugin to boost the type contrast, or a tool to let you reserve Amazon books at the library or buy widgets from your local hardware store.

Amazon’s ASIN database may have protection in Europe (where they unwisely adopted a “database right” that is an adjunct to copyright), but in the USA, factual collections of identifiers are not eligible for copyright.

Amazon’s terms of service may prohibit the creation of such a database, but courts are increasingly unwilling to limit the ability of third parties to access and process publicly identifiable data from commercial websites.

This won’t fix the Amazon problem, but it will fix part of the Amazon problem. Turning monopolies into dumb pipe is a time-honored tradition, the very soul of the gospel of disruption, which Amazon has preached since its earliest days. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power; Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering (Tor, 2023); and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias (Tor, 2023).