Oct 232012
censorship on the internet and social media

We all value our collections of CDs, books and photos, but what happens when we completely lose the digital equivalents?

The story of Linn, a Norwegian lady who had her account terminated by Amazon, demonstrates the dangers of being locked into one Internet company’s empire. Get cut off and you lose everything related to them.

A little understood part of the cloud computing and app world is that you, the customer or user – which isn’t necessarily the same thing – don’t really own anything. The money you spend on ebooks, mobile apps or web storage are for licenses to use the services, not the products themselves.

Should the supplier decide they no longer want to provide you with their service, then you lose your account and everything with it.

This is what happened to Linn when Amazon’s algorithm decided her account was in some way breaching their terms and conditions.

We have found your account is directly related to another which has been previously closed for abuse of our policies. As such, your Amazon.co.uk account has been closed and any open orders have been cancelled.

Per our Conditions of Use which state in part: Amazon.co.uk and its affiliates reserve the right to refuse service, terminate accounts, remove or edit content, or cancel orders at their sole discretion.

“At their sole discretion” is the key point here. This is a standard term in most online contracts and reflects the legal realities of the physical world where a shopping mall manager or bar owner can ask you to leave their property without having to tell you why.

When you use a virtual service, which includes e-books and cloud computing software, you are on someone’s virtual property and they can ask you to leave any time they feel.

Of course those rights are subject to any contract you might have with that e-book seller, cloud computing service or shopping centre but you have to be in a position to enforce them – not an easy task when you’re in Norway and their lawyers are in Connecticut.

Even if you want to enforce the agreement you believe these services have entered into, the grossly biased contracts attempt to put all obligations on users or customers while freeing the vendor of the distraction of being responsible for anything.

The real problem though is the lack of notice and fairness – this blog’s previously looked at how PayPal, Facebook and Google will shut down business sites without any warning or due process.

It’s one thing to get thrown out of a shopping mall but it’s another matter when your car and week’s groceries are still in there.

Even more worrying in Linn’s case is how ebooks and music purchased with Digital Rights Management (DRM) controls can be erased by companies like Amazon. Which is like walking home from the shopping mall you’ve been banned from to find the manager has called by to confiscate the toaster and TV you bought last week.

What’s particularly notable in all of these stories though is the Soviet customer service model, the Amazon”Executive Customer Relations” representative Linn dealt with refused to tell her what she’d done wrong or what rules she broke.

The only thing “Michael Murphy” would tell her was she was effectively banned for being linked to a blocked account and stated;

“Please know that any attempt to open a new account will meet with the same action.”

No notice, no appeal, no rights. The computer says no and the bureaucrat cannot help you further.

Trust lies at the core of all business and this is even more true when buying services like e-books and cloud computing products. If you can’t trust a vendor to provide a service, or to act openly and honest with you when a problem occurs, then it’s unlikely you’ll use that service.

A lack of trust is what web 2.0 companies like Amazon and eBay risk with hostile, Soviet style customer service. This is the weak point of the entire online business model.

For individuals and businesses it’s important to understand that those e-book, cloud storage or social media services may appear to be a bargain, but there are risks lurking in the fine print.

The new Soviets might be doing well at the moment, but their days are numbered just as the USSR’s were.

  2 Responses to “Amazon and the Soviet customer service model”

  1. Yeah, I had gotten the same treatment in September but at least she knew the name of the person blocking her Amazon account, I just got an e-mail from an unnamed “Account Specialist”. I lost access to a significant portion of my music purchases that I did not have access to because my computer was undergoing repairs and I couldn’t download them at that time.

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