At the Technology Liberation Front, Adam Thierer has been reviewing, in installments, Tim Wu’s new book The Master Switch, and has received interesting pushback from Wu. One point of debate has been about the definition of “monopoly”: Wu wants an expansive one, according to which a company can have plenty of competition, and consumers multiple alternatives, and yet that company can still be said to have a monopoly. (Thierer responds here.)

I think Wu’s definition is problematic and not, ultimately, sustainable, but I see and sympathize with his major point. I can have alternatives to a particular service/product/company, and yet find it almost impossible to escape it because of what I’ve already invested in it. When I read stories like this, or talk to friends who work for small presses, I tell myself that I should never deal with Amazon again — and yet I do, in part because buying stuff from Amazon is so frictionless, but also because I have a significant number of Kindle books now, and all those annotations that I can access on the website. . . . I don’t want to lose all that. I can feel my principles slipping away, just as they did when I tried to escape the clutches of Google.

Amazon is not, technically speaking, a monopoly, and neither is Google. But they have monopoly-like power over me — at least for now. And I need to figure out just how problematic that is, and whether I should opt out of their services, and (if so) how to opt out of them, and what to replace them with. . . . Man, modern life is complicated. These are going to be some of the major moral issues of the coming decades: ones revolving around how to deal with services that have a monopolistic role in a given person’s life. Philip K. Dick saw it all coming. . . .


  1. Some thoughts on opting out:

    Four years ago we had the first of what would ultimately prove to be a disastrous series of episodes with Google. Ultimately it would cost of tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours spent chasing our tail trying to "fix" our website. (In fact, there was nothing wrong with our website. Google had massive shifted how they ranked websites dealing with sexuality, in some cases in ways that I found morally reprehensible.)

    We "opted out" of depending on Google driven sales, but at a cost. Specifically, instead of making 100% of MSRP, we now make about half that.

    That hurt us. A lot. But we never once (seriously) thought about removing our site from Google's index.

    Now we've had this dust up with Joe Liberman and Amazon and Wikileaks. I've seen some calls to boycott Amazon, including from people who have books for sale on Amazon.

    But not surprisingly, none of these people are calling for a boycott.

  2. No matter how one defines one's terms, it's pretty undeniable that certain companies have de facto monopolies even if not the sole operator in a given market. And short of even that, some companies possess enough market share that they can dictate terms to their suppliers — again, without a literal monopoly. Wal-Mart comes to mind.

    On a related note, being forced into submitting to unsavory exchanges with providers of goods or services and the third parties connected to them calls to mind credit card companies, data miners (all those services building shopping profiles on, well, everyone), and the TSA. Sure, payment by credit or debit card and air travel are elective, but they are so routine and commonplace that to opt out isn't merely a question of going elsewhere with one's business but a serious sacrifice if one stands on principles and refuses to relinquish reasonable expectations of privacy.

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