Pluralistic: 01 Aug 2022

Today's links

A modified Amazon product listing page; the buy with Amazon button and Prime logo have been replaced with a

Podcasting "View A SKU" (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I read my recent Medium column, "View a SKU: Let’s Make Amazon Into a Dumb Pipe," about how interop can help us demonopolize Amazon and tame its market power:

To explain this proposal, I need to start with an axiom: there are lots of problems with Amazon (lots!) but the fact that Amazon is really convenient is not one of those problems. Your use of Amazon isn't a mark of your "laziness" any more than your consumption of plastics is a mark of your indifference to the planet.

As Zephyr Teachout writes in her stupendous book Break 'Em Up, "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."

The drive to "shop local" is great, but it shouldn't become a hairshirt. If you buy something from Amazon, it doesn't necessarily mean that you support union-busting, monopolization and creepy surveillance doorbells. It might just mean that you are out of time and live in a place where Amazon killed most of the retail that survived Walmart.

A Mr Gotcha panel by Matt Bors from The Nib. A downtrodden peasant says, 'We should improve society somewhat.' Mr Gotcha replies, 'Yet you participate in society, curious! I am very intelligent.'

If you've enjoyed Matt Bors's work, you understand this. It's the essence of the Mr Gotcha gag. A downtrodden peasant says, "We should improve society somewhat" and Mr Gotcha replies, "Yet you participate in society, curious! I am very intelligent."

The fact that Amazon has given us a single database in which you can search for a large slice of all the objects of retail commerce, read reviews, and explore alternatives is good, actually. The problem is in how Amazon abuses its workforce, crams its suppliers, self-preferences its own goods, and shifts wealth from taxpaying local businesses to its tax-evading coffers.

The same politics and economics that have made it so hard not to use Amazon have also made working people much poorer, both in terms of money and time. It's not reasonable to expect people who are piecing together a living from three or four casualized jobs and paying sky-high pump prices to spend hours driving around looking for a local merchant to buy a specific widget at.

But what if we could make shopping locally – where a local alternative existed – easier than shopping at Amazon? What if we could actually turn Amazon into a tool for finding goods at local merchants?

A screenshot from Library Extension, showing an Amazon listing for one of the Divergent books with the 'Buy' button replaced by buttons to reserve at a variety of local libraries.

That's where my proposal comes in. It was inspired by Library Extension, a browser plugin that notices if you're looking at a book on Amazon and adds a "Reserve at your local library" button to the page, over the "Add to your cart" button.

Library Extension is an example of adversarial interoperabitlity (or what we at EFF call "comcom," short for "competitive compatibility"). That's when someone adds features to an existing product or service without permission from the company that made it – like an ad-blocker that changes the websites you look at to make them better for you.

Library Extension works as well as it does because books all share a common set of unique identifiers: the ISBN, which is easy to detect on a webpage and also easy to look up in a database of library books. Shared identifiers make cross-referencing easy.

The product listing and URL for an Amazon product page, with the ASINs highlighted in pink.

As it happens, Amazon has assigned unique identifiers to virtually anything you might want to buy: the ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number). What if a co-op created a database that cross-referenced ASINs with other inventory numbers (like UPCs and SKUs)? We could offer inventory control system plug-ins to merchants that automatically listed their inventory in a central, co-operatively managed database of what was for sale, where.

Then, users who wanted to shop locally could install a Library Extension-like browser plugin that did a quick lookup whenever they browsed an Amazon product page, and, if the product was for sale locally, replace the "Add to Cart" button with a "Buy from local merchant" one, which would automatically process a payment to the local merchant using a payment method stored in your browser (no need to set up a separate account for every merchant).

Likewise, we could expand Library Extension to add a "Buy from" button to every book page, and a "Buy from" button to every audiobook page.

In other words, we could turn Amazon into a dumb pipe: a commodity supplier of catalog pages, reviews and recommendations. The conversion of centralized services into dumb pipes is a time-honored tradition, as David Isenberg wrote in his classic 1998 ACM paper:

Now, could we do this? As a technical matter, sure. A lot would depend on adapting small businesses' inventory control systems, but the vendors behind those systems would benefit from participating in those adaptations, as would their customers.

What about as a legal matter? Well, IANAL, but…

  • Your browser is yours. Adapting the web-pages you get served to suit your tastes is unambiguously lawful, as is providing the tools to do so. Hence the rise of ad-blockers, "the biggest boycott in world history":

  • The ASIN database is a collection of factual identifiers; the USA has (wisely) not adopted the Database Right that the EU got suckered into, so databases of factual identifiers are not copyrightable:,_Inc.,_v._Rural_Telephone_Service_Co.

  • Amazon's terms of service ban you from doing this kind of thing, but US federal judges are increasingly skeptical of attempts to block scraping public information through terms of service:

Note that executing this plan won't solve the Amazon problem, but it will solve an Amazon problem. It's no substitute for other forms of antitrust enforcement (bans on self-preferencing, forced selloffs of anticompetitive acquisitions, merger scrutiny) but it is faster than those things, and will deliver immediate relief to shoppers and small businesses.

That's the kind of "tech exceptionalism" I'm completely here for. The breakup of the Bell System took 69 years, all told. We don't want to wait 69 years before we blunt Amazon's monopoly power:

This is why Big Tech is the natural starting place for antitrust: because Big Tech is built atop general purpose computers that can be rendered interoperable, regulators seeking to limit Big Tech power have unique, powerful additions to their to toolkits.

I know that some of my comrades-in-arms are skeptical of Big Tech antitrust, correctly asserting that other monopolies (like telecoms and entertainment companies) are also corrupt monopolies in sore need of antitrust attention. I want to break those companies' corporate power, too! In fact, my next book is all about limiting the power of tech and entertainment judges to screw creative workers:

But the availability of cool, fast-acting interoperability remedies make Big Tech the natural place to start – the natural vanguard for the anti-monopoly fights we'll have to bring to every sector, from cheerleading uniforms to beer, from finance to international shipping:

Taming Big Tech is where we start, not where we end. It's the orchard with the most low-hanging fruit. Racking up victories against Big Tech will create the political will and the movement power to go after all those other monopolies:

Here's the podcast episode:

Here's a direct link to the MP3 (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive; they'll host your stuff for free, forever):

And here's a link to my podcast feed:

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Internet Radio tax created to kill small webcasters and eliminate competition

#20yrsago Webcams and life in the panopticon

#15yrsago William Gibson’s Spook Country

#15yrsago TSA chief: no-fly lists work, but it’s a secret LA hospital will give out your info “to protect the President”

#15yrsago DRM is digital Lysenkoism

#15yrsago Bruce Schneier interviews TSA head Kip Hawley

#10yrsago Ubisoft’s DRM leaves your computer wide open to browser-based system hijacking

#10yrsago vN: a science fiction novel about robots, perverts, power and privilege

#10yrsago Doonesbury has a new protagonist

#10yrsago Romney’s tax-free decade What can we learn from the Aurora shooting?

#5yrsago Bitch Doctrine: sympathy, empathy and rage from the Laurie Penny’s red pen of justice

#5yrsago Amazon’s “fish antibiotics” are a way for uninsured people to buy medicine without paying for doctor’s visits

#5yrsago Jury to rule on whether the CIA’s torture architects will stand trial for killing and maiming

#5yrsago Profile of Lexi Alexander: director, martial arts champ, and the first (only) woman to direct a Marvel movie

#5yrsago What not to do when you’re anonymous, if you want to stay that way

#5yrsago A list of the most deadly calorie bombs for sale at America’s chain restaurants

#5yrsago John Oliver reveals Alex Jones’s woo-empire of overpriced, terror-fuelled quack remedies

#5yrsago Security researchers repeatedly warned Kids Pass about bad security, only to be ignored and blocked

#5yrsago Days before elections, the official in charge of Kenya’s voting machines has been tortured and murdered

#5yrsago How African speculative fiction gave birth to itself

#5yrsago Defcon vote-hacking village shows that “secure” voting machines can be broken in minutes

#1yrago Games Workshop declares war on its customers (again)

#1yrago Github pledges legal aid for interoperators

Colophon (permalink)

Currently writing:

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. Friday's progress: 553 words (27307 words total)

  • The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, a nonfiction book about interoperability for Verso. Friday's progress: 505 words (23466 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. (92849 words total) – ON PAUSE

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EXPERT REVIEW

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FINAL DRAFT COMPLETE

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: View a SKU: Let’s Make Amazon Into a Dumb Pipe

Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022

  • Red Team Blues: "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books, April 2023

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