A good friend of mine has a saying that has become something of a motto in our relationship: "Being a good person is hard." We say it with mock frustration to hide our genuine shame, often stomping our feet and slamming a fist down on whichever wall or table is closest. We say it when discussing a text to an ex who treated us poorly, or to justify screening a call from our parents, or when we were thinking about sending a thoughtful email to an aunt — but then, you know, season two of Orange is the New Black came out.
More recently, we say it when we make a purchase from Amazon. In fact, the most recent time I can remember the catchphrase coming up is upon seeing an Amazon Prime package at my friend’s apartment. "But we said we weren't going to shop at Amazon anymore," I said. He raised his hands in the way children do when they're caught with a cookie before dinner. "I needed a book for school, and the Strand said it would take five to seven business days, and I needed it in one,” he said. "Being a good person is hard."
Two days later, I went to my friend's apartment, where we watched Life Itself, the Roger Ebert documentary, on Amazon Instant Video. It cost us $6.99 — the same price that Apple is selling it for, but we didn't have Apple TV, and yeah, sure, we could have crowded around a laptop, but who really wants to do that?
Being a good person is, indeed, hard.
If you're wondering what the tie between ethics and Amazon is, it's possible that you are living on another planet (though I wouldn't be surprised if Amazon Moon becomes the company's latest venture). George Packer asked the question "Is Amazon good for books?" in an in-depth New Yorker article earlier this year, just a few months before Hachette Book Group, one of the largest publishers in the world, entered a standoff with Amazon. Due to confidentiality agreements signed by both Hachette and Amazon, the details of the fight remain murky, but the general consensus is that Amazon sought concessions on ebook sales which Hachette was unwilling to concede. In an effort to change the publisher’s mind, Amazon delayed deliveries and prevented pre-orders on certain Hachette books, upsetting book buyers, Hachette authors and, in a wave that rippled through the publishing community, literati at large.
Hachette vs. Amazon was just the beginning of a cloud of controversy that has formed over the online retailer. Nowadays, it seems like you can't swing a drone without crashing into an Amazon lawsuit. On June 10, the Federal Trade Commission filed a suit against the company, claiming that Amazon had improperly billed customers for "many millions of dollars" of charges that children had made without the consent of their parents.
Even more recently, the French Parliament passed legislation that, though not officially aimed at Amazon, has been dubbed the “Anti-Amazon” Law by some. (Whether Lagardere, a French media company and parent of Hachette Book Group, had any hand in the passage of the legislation remains conjecture.) The new law bans free shipping on books sold at 5 percent below retail rates, creating a hurdle for much of Amazon’s business. It was a move that showed France’s commitment to protecting brick-and-mortar bookstores, but the online retailer isn't going down without a fight: Amazon announced via its French website that it will be charging only .01 Euro for shipping on all orders containing books.
What's most notable about France’s law isn't its effectiveness (or lack thereof), but the French government’s position against Amazon. After all, if anyone or anything is actually going to break — or even just loosen — the online retailer's steel grip on the publishing industry, it's likely going to be legislation that erodes its unique, Internet-age monopoly.
All of this debate comes on the heels of Amazon's 19th anniversary. Though the company was founded in 1994, it didn't publicly come online until July 16, 1995. Back then it was just a few people packing up boxes of books from a two-car garage in Bellevue, Washington; Amazon is a far cry from there now. The company ended 2013 with $74.5 billion in revenue, a 22 percent increase from 2012. It also recently announced that Babak Parviz, one of the leaders behind the Google X and Google Glass, will be joining Amazon. Additionally, the company is currently in the process of asking the Federal Aviation Administration permission to use drones as part of its plan to deliver packages in 30 minutes or less.
It's systems like the drones that make being a "good person" (a vague phrase that means everything and nothing, but for me means, amongst other things, supporting small and local businesses) such a difficult feat. Being morally malformed can seem like a small price to pay when you're busy and broke and Amazon is promising fast and cheap delivery. Although I wish I could spurn Amazon, I can, at best, say that I will only use it when I truly do need a book as soon as possible and all the bookstores nearby are not selling it. I will promise that I won’t ever use Amazon to purchase toilet paper (an infuriating habit that a former roommate of mine got into because it’s “just so easy”), but I do admit that sounds like a vegetarian promising not to eat only when the line at Shake Shack is too long.
Anniversaries are typically a cause for celebration, and at least inside Amazon's headquarters in Seattle, there is a lot to celebrate. But for the rest of us, it might be good to carve out some time today not to celebrate, but to reflect on how Amazon has changed both publishing and the world in the past 19 years, for better and for worse.