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Hunter Fast '12: On property rights and the marketplace of ideas

In a recent column, Elizabeth Perez '13 decried Amazon's endorsement of the free exchange of ideas while bending to consumer pressure to remove highly controversial books from its offerings ("Corporate power trip," Nov. 29). While this may make Amazon's corporate leadership disingenuous and two-faced, in no way did Amazon infringe on anyone else's rights by choosing which books could be sold on a website that it owns and operates.

Central to Perez's reasoning is the conflation of the right to read a work with the right to be sold a work by any vendor. While the former is enshrined in the First Amendment, the latter is itself a violation of the property rights of booksellers in that the right to trade always and everywhere includes the right not to trade, whatever the reason. This is the true meaning of free exchange.

After all, even corporations as large as Amazon are owned by groups of individuals — for publicly-traded firms, shareholders. These individuals, as with those who run small independent bookstores, are under no obligation to use their resources to transmit ideas of which they disapprove. Indeed, the refusal to sell a certain work is often itself a form of expression.

For instance, one would expect that a devout Muslim who runs a small religious bookstore might be disinclined to carry Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses." In not doing so, is the bookseller infringing on Rushdie's rights or those of his readers? Absolutely not — what appears on the store's shelves is largely a function of the bookseller's conscience. Even if he were motivated by the bottom line and not religious fervor, it would be a violation of his rights to force him to offer Rushdie's works to his pious clientele.

Furthermore, anyone who wants to read Rushdie's works is free to purchase them from a competitor. Because Amazon does not hold a monopoly over the sale of books, the removal of works like "The Pedophile's Guide to Love and Pleasure" from its catalog does not imply that these works are forever banned. Rather, anyone who wants to purchase a copy will simply have to buy from one of Amazon's competitors.

Even if every store on the face of the earth decided not to sell a certain controversial book, all hope is not lost. Any person in any reasonably free country can always start his or her own bookstore specifically to sell controversial books that cannot find a home elsewhere.

Due to the global reach of the Internet, such a vendor could reach all the same markets as Amazon. However, since moral crusaders would not form a major part of such a company's consumer base by definition, protecting free speech would not endanger its ability to run profitably.

Therefore, free expression and property rights can coexist harmoniously. Over time, the market will segment such that certain vendors, like Amazon, will cater to those who feel entitled to engage in moralistic witch hunts, while others will target a clientele that is smarter than that.

Because people are free to purchase from suppliers that reflect their values, one does not need to demand that Amazon uphold the ideal of free expression in order to protect controversial — and occasionally important — ideas. As WikiLeaks has recently demonstrated, the Internet is a remarkable tool for disseminating information in the face of suppression.

That being said, the free exchange of ideas is severely threatened by the corporate interests behind the current attack on "net neutrality." Perez mentions the campaign against the Internet's tendency to treat data from different sources in a non-preferential way, but does not discuss the fact that it has far wider implications than the distribution of books on Amazon. The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), now in the Senate Judiciary Committee, would give the American government the authority to shut down any website that engages in "infringing activities."

No government should be trusted with the power to censor the content of the Internet, in many ways the heart of modern civil society. Moreover, infringement could conceivably cover the state's internal information as well. If the government can prevent the release of information that unelected bureaucrats feel should not see the light of day, then the cause of transparent government is lost.

There is a problem in terms of corporate control over the exchange of ideas, but it is a much larger problem than whether or not Amazon decides to offer books about pedophilia. Amazon is fully within its rights to determine the content of its catalog, but no national government should be given — at the behest of Viacom and other corporate interests — the right to regulate the content of the entire World Wide Web.

Hunter Fast ‘12 is a lost econ junior who finds informational economics to be far more interesting.


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