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The recent rallying cry for a boycott of Amazon.com is hardly the first of its kind. It’s also not the first time the world’s largest e-retailer has been accused of using bullying, unfair, tone-deaf business practices.
To put the current “boycott Amazon” campaign—as promoted by The Stranger, Reuters, Gawker, and others—in perspective, here’s a brief retrospective of previous efforts to put Amazon in place by not giving it any of your money.
The Free Software Foundation urged a boycott of Amazon because the site claimed a patent on one-click purchasing—something of a novelty at the time—and was suing other e-commerce companies (including BarnesandNoble.com) that used a one-click purchasing process. “Amazon has sued to block the use of this simple idea, showing that they truly intend to monopolize it,” a widely circulated e-mail that called for the boycott stated. “This is an attack against the World Wide Web and against e-commerce in general.” A couple years later, Amazon seemed less inclined to bother using its patent to threaten competitors, and the boycott was dropped.
Around 2007—the year that NFL quarterback Michael Vick was suspended and sent to jail for running an illegal dogfighting ring—animal lovers began loudly calling for a boycott of Amazon because the site sold videos, magazines, and books about dogfighting and cockfighting. At least two of the titles described as “torture guides” by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are still available for purchase on Amazon.
In late October 2010, a self-published e-book went on sale at Amazon with extremely disturbing subject matter, summed up in the title: The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child-lover’s Code of Conduct.
At first, despite massive protests online and calls for a broad boycott of Amazon, the e-retailer refused to remove the item from the site. The company released a statement with its justification to keeping the e-book for sale, explaining, “Amazon.com believes it is censorship not to sell certain titles because we believe their message is objectionable.” Within a few days, however, Amazon relented and stopped selling the pedophilia book.
After U.S. political leaders pressured Amazon to block Wikileaks, the whistle-blowing website known for leaking classified security documents, Amazon relented, and stopped hosting the site. Free speech advocates including Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers, promptly called for a consumer boycott of Amazon.
For several years, Amazon was in the habit of spending millions of dollars lobbying various states to cut off local efforts to start charging sales tax on online purchases. To small business owners, the fact that sales tax was not automatically charged for e-commerce purchases gave e-retailers such as Amazon an unfair advantage—customers could easily save 7% or whatever the local sales tax rate was simply by purchasing online. (Sure, those consumers were later supposed to pay the sales tax they owed to the state, but almost no one did that.) In 2011, while California approved the installation of a sales tax on online purchases but hadn’t yet put the policy in practice, Amazon was actively trying to get the law overturned. The company’s efforts were met with a call to (surprise, surprise) boycott Amazon.
The boycott never really gained steam, and as of mid-September 2012, the campaign was totally moot, as Amazon began charging sales tax in California. Amazon customers in many other states who once could skip out on sales tax are now automatically charged sales tax on e-commerce purchases as well.
In the fall of 2011, reports spread about deplorable worker conditions at Amazon warehouses and shipping centers around the country. An investigation by the Pennsylvania Morning Call showed employees at the Amazon warehouse in the Lehigh Valley enduring sweatshop-like conditions, including indoor temperatures so hot (over 100 degrees during summer heat waves) that the company arranged for ambulances to parked outside, waiting to treat workers for dehydration or other heat-related issues.
“Workers said they were forced to endure brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse and were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain,” the Morning Call reported. “Employees were frequently reprimanded regarding their productivity and threatened with termination, workers said.”
After consumer and worker groups got wind of Amazon worker complaints, a boycott was called for during the 2011 winter holiday shopping season. Some 12,600 consumers pledged to boycott Amazon for the holidays, if not indefinitely. If nothing else, Amazon stated that it has since installed much-need air-conditioners in warehouses, when appropriate.
The U.S. isn’t the only country where Amazon workers have voiced gripes against the company. In late 2013, for instance, Germany’s Amazon.com workers went on strike and staged protests outside the company’s Seattle headquarters due to “low wages, permanent performance pressure and short-term contracts.” Many have called for a boycott of Amazon among German consumers because of the company’s treatment of workers.
Calls for a consumer boycott Amazon, as well as Starbucks and Google, throughout the UK started spreading in 2012, continued through 2013, and gained more traction in spring of 2014, with Margaret Hodge, chair of the public accounts committee in the UK, personally calling for consumers to avoid doing business with these companies.
Why? Due to a range of strategies employed by the companies, they pay relatively little in corporate taxes. Amazon, for instance, paid £4.2m in UK taxes in 2013, or 0.1% of its UK revenues. “It is an outrage and Amazon should pay their fair share of tax,” said Hodge. “They are making money out of not paying taxes. I no longer use Amazon. We should shop elsewhere.”
In September, Boston-based author Jaime Clarke launched an odd website to help sell his new novel, Vernon Downs. The site’s url was PleaseDontBuyMyBookonAmazon.com. Clark said he was motivated to create the site because he wanted help independent publishers such as Roundabout Press, which published Clarke’s book.
“Most indie publishers rely on Amazon to sell their books, and to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, the price is high,” Clarke said in a Q&A with CNET. “Indie publishers realize a fraction of the purchase price and are at the mercy of Amazon’s discounting policies.”
What’s more, Clarke just so happens to be the co-owner of Newtonville Books, which just so happens to be an independent bookstore—the ranks of which have been depleted during Amazon’s rise to power. “Independent bookstore owners loathe Amazon and its bald-pated founder, Jeff Bezos,” a Boston Globe story on Clarke explained.
The most recent boycott Amazon push is related to the company’s ongoing battle with the Hachette Book Group. Essentially, Amazon wants to sell Hachette e-books at a lower price than the publisher wants, and to get its way, Amazon has stopped selling preorders of Hachette books, and it has slowed down the process of customers buying and shipping other Hachette books. For many, this clash epitomized the view that Amazon has too much power, is verging on a monopoly, and is perhaps just plain evil. And for many, this clash is what finally makes them feel that it is time to buy stuff elsewhere.