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“Censorship” at Apple

A kind reader sent me this article in which Seth Godin accuses the Apple bookstore of censorship because Apple won’t carry one of his free ebooks that contains links to Amazon enabling readers to easily purchase books in his bibliography.

His argument is either naive or self-serving. Given that it’s Godin, it’s pretty easy to decide which.

First of all, if the book is widely available elsewhere, then it’s not censored. That’s the basic flaw in all the “Banned” Books Week nonsense.

Nevertheless, the gist of his claim is clear: “what’s inside the book shouldn’t be of concern to a bookstore with a substantial choke on the marketplace. If it’s legal, they ought to let people read it if they choose to.”

That sounds pretty good. It’s basically the ethic of libraries. You want to read it, we’ll try to get it for you. Libraries have a self-imposed obligation to provide access to information, and in many cases even “information.” That’s what we do.

But bookstores? Is that what they do? Or, is that what they’re in business to do? Yes and no. They’re in business to sell books. Godin implies they’re in business to sell books. But we can just as easily see they’re in business to sell books.

In other words, they’re in the business of selling, not in the business of making sure books get sold regardless of who is selling them. As long as books get distributed, libraries don’t really care how, but bookstores do.

Godin compares Apple’s “censorship” to the good old days, when bookstores would order anything you wanted to pay for. But even back in the good old days, bookstores wanted to sell you books, not just make sure you got books.

Witness all the complaints over the years about Amazon and Barnes & Noble destroying smaller neighborhood bookstores. Everyone who has complained about that implicitly believes that who sells the book matters as much as whether the book gets sold.

So of course Apple cares who is selling books. Apple doesn’t care whether anyone reads books. They don’t care if anyone has access to Godin’s latest free “manifesto.” They care about making money for Apple.

Oh, and have I mentioned the book is free? So Apple isn’t even making money on it. Why on earth would Apple want to host a book on its ebook platform for free and then have that book link to one of its competitors to buy books?

Moreover, why would Apple want to do this? Apple’s products have always been insular and locked down. Why on earth would anyone think the creator of the iPhone would be interested in the free flow of information is beyond me. A company long dominated by an enormously wealthy man who never gave anything to charity doesn’t seem like one devoted to the public good of reading.

There are two problems with the complaint against Apple. The first is to assume that any retailer would allow its platform to be used for free to help people buy things from a competitor. Admittedly, some would. I doubt Amazon would care, because when it comes to books Amazon rules the roost.

The second problem is assuming that the most insular and controlling tech company around would allow this. Apple isn’t censoring anything. Apple is just doing what it does. If you want to deal with Apple, you have to do what it says, even with your own devices. If you don’t like it, stay away.

Godin does have a good point, though. “Once you are reading your books on a device that is hooked into a store, the person curating the store has a great deal more power than a local bookseller ever did.”

That’s absolutely true, and it would be a scary world indeed where everyone had to rely upon the good will of Apple to get books. Apple doesn’t care if people get books. Apple doesn’t care about people, period. If you want to know what Apple thinks about people, ask the workers at Foxconn.

So it would be a frightening world if Apple was the only ebook retailer. Fortunately, we don’t yet live in that world. And if we ever do, God help us all.



  1. This one was truly a headscratcher. Apple famously made Amazon remove all links to their store from the Kindle app on iPhone and iPad. Is that censorship?

    Amazon quickly realized that it was better to have their platform out there on iOS devices and got rid of those links. You’d think that an author who’s become Internet-famous for spouting off new marketing ideas would come to the same conclusion.

    Then again maybe it’s more fun to gripe about how he’s being repressed.

    • The Librarian With No Name says:

      I suppose it depends on whether having his free book in the Apple store will generate more interest than having his free book talked about in heroic terms on anti-censorship and anti-Apple blogs for a couple of weeks.

      If he knuckles under and removes the links for an Apple Store version, he gets access to an existing audience, but probably a pretty passive sort of access. If he makes a stand and frames it in terms of The Man telling you, the reader, not to read his book, he gets a huge amount of positive word-of-mouth. The article that all the blogs will be linking to even contains instructions on how to read the book on iOS devices.

      So folks eager to read up on Apple’s latest dastardly deeds are sent directly to the place they need to go in order to read the book, and are left with the vague sense that they’ve got a moral responsibility to do so.

      Maybe if we want more people using libraries we need to manufacture some David/Goliath controversy of our own. Bring up some local legislation slashing library funding and produce some grainy black-and-white ads accusing The Opposition of trying to keep you out of the library.

  2. It’s a company in the private sector. They can “censor” whatever they want. Period. Of all companies to do it about the one who has been this controlling for so many years with such a rabid following probably isn’t going to win anyone over.

  3. I Like Books says:

    Free speech isn’t like free beer.

  4. Businesses exist to make money. If they happen to do some nice things along the way, that’s a bonus, but it shouldn’t be expected.

    Which isn’t to say that businesses are evil, can’t be run ethically, and exist only to rape and pillage. I’d argue that Bill Gates, for example, did far more good with Microsoft than he has done with his foundation.

  5. Libraryman says:

    I personally think Apple’s control of content goes against it’s perceived image. “Think different” does not apply if you don’t give them your money. However, they are a business. It is their perogative to make money. I don’t complain about Amazons attempts to be as successful as possible and wont complain about Apple’s. My only gripe is they paint themselves as these greedless free-thinkers and it is clear that they are not.

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