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An ebookstore is more like a web browser than a bookstore

March 2, 2012
by seth godin

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[An addendum for this post]

Google Chrome is made by Google. It’s free.

Safari is made by Apple. It’s free too.

The question one could ask is: Should Google be able to keep you from seeing web pages that criticize Google or compete with Google? Should there be a system in place where the people who make the browser get to decide if they’re going to present you a web page or not?

Consider podcasts for a second. Podcasts are usually found by listeners in the Apple iTunes store, offered free and built in. Should Apple block podcasts about how great Windows is, or ones that encourage people to use Android? After all, people who want those podcasts could certainly find them if they used Firefox, right? One could argue that they’re not blocking it, they’re just not listing it in their store.

We’re not talking about free speech here (which is originally a term to describe your right to criticize the government.) We’re talking about commercial speech. Barnes and Noble chooses to sell books about how to use a Kindle, and Amazon sells books about how to run an independent bookstore and Firefox doesn’t get in the way when you want to go download Chrome or Safari.

I was in the supermarket today and they had a display of magazines at the checkout. One cover was about eating less, a direct challenge to the very nature of the store’s purpose. All the magazines carried ads for products the store doesn’t sell, and some of the ads encouraged people to shop somewhere else.

Our conception of fairness says that an independent store ought to feel no obligation about what to stock on its shelves. But when commercial speech gets involved, we get nervous, because stopping commercial speech inevitably starts to creep into more and more control. When the store is digital and integrated into devices, it gets a lot more uncomfortable.

I think the line is pretty easy to draw (at least in most cases). If you’re going to announce that you’re offering a wide browsing experience, the implicit promise to the reader is that you won’t limit this experience for selfish commercial gain. There’s a huge difference between someone standing in a store handing out coupons and a store reading magazines and listening to podcasts in search of speech they might not profit from.

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