<nettime> Amazon and Wikileaks

t byfield tbyfield at panix.com
Tue Feb 8 09:44:58 PST 2011

When Amazon booted Wikileaks, I decided to do tinker with this problem.
Too many arguments about Wikileaks (and just about everything else)
hinged too heavily on metaphors and analogies, which tend to obscure
rather than articulate what's new about a situation -- kind of obvious,
if you think about it. After all, Amazon began as a bookseller and
remains an immense force in that field, which historically is deeply
intertwingled with "free speech." So, regardless of your preferred
metaphor for Wikileaks (journalism, publishing, treason, terrorism,
etc), Amazon's action conflicted with that tradition. A typical
conglomerate problem, right? A diversified 'portfolio' may be a smart
strategy for making money, but it's a shit strategy when it comes to the
particulars of any given activity -- boring stuff like craft, values,

Naturally, Amazon runs a print-on-demand service, Createspace. So I
knocked together a book called _Cablegate: The Complete Wikileaks
Datadump_, Volume 1. Their "online tools" are what they are, and it went
well enough -- and quickly enough that I received five proof copies
notably ahead of schedule. I approved them and ordered ten copies, which
also arrived ahead of schedule.

The book consists of 200 pages of what might look like random noise to
some people, or maybe like a 3D barcode to others. The cover text on the
back (and therefore on Createspace's and Amazon's promo pages, where it
received several reviews) said this:

     On Sunday 28th November 2010, Wikileaks began publishing
     251,287 leaked United States embassy cables, the largest set
     of confidential documents ever to be released into the
     public domain. Volume 1 of Cablegate: The Complete Wikileaks
     Datadump offers an abstract, high-level view of these
     communications in 200 densely packed pages. Due to the
     immense volume of material, it was necessary to rely on
     extremely efficient encoding techniques, with a consequent
     loss of resolution; as a result, we cannot guarantee that
     all of the material is legible.

Soon after I got the production copies, the URL for this book circulated
on the "anonops" IRC channel. And very soon after that -- more than
hours, less than days -- Createspace "reached out" (bleh) to say

     Our technical services department has recently confirmed
     that the interior content uploaded to your title contains
     blank black and white pages. They have set your title to
     incomplete so that you can upload a file with content.

I went back and forth with them about this, of course. Their
explanations are painfully boring, but do pay close attention:

Version 2:

     Upon reviewing your account, it was confirmed that the
     content submitted for your title is entirely comprised of
     black and white static. This content has caused pauses in
     our production process as it's viewed as a printing error.
     As this is halting production we are unable to continue
     distributing this title at this time.

Version 3:

     In the most recent print run of your title, production was
     stopped on your book after a routine quality check indicated
     that your interior files were printing incorrectly due to a
     production error. We had to remove the availability of your
     title as we are unable to continue fulfilling orders for
     your title since it will continue to halt production.

Version 4:

     You are welcome to fade the static images on each page and
     indicate on each page that you are displaying encrypted text
     and that it is a gag book. You may also upload a file with
     text on most pages and the static image pages interspersed
     throughout. However, please note that we will not allow more
     than two consecutive pages of static images. Additionally,
     you may add a disclaimer page at the beginning of the book
     that this is a gag book. You may also consider adding
     information in the description that this is a gag book as to
     not foster customer confusion on Amazon.com.

Version 5:

     There are two main concerns with the interior of Title ID
     3522893.  First and foremost, the interior file caused a
     production error; this occurred was a result of the black
     and white images, also defined as "static," on all the
     interior pages.  Furthermore, as there is not text in the
     book file indicating the black and white images as
     intentional, it was seen as a mistake in production. As a
     result, all of production was stopped and in order to
     prevent the same occurrence, it was necessary to remove the
     availability of the title. Secondly, the current book
     description does not detail that the book is a gag or the
     reason for the illegible material on the interior.
     Therefore, customers could purchase the title without being
     made aware that it is a gag book. Overall, it must be
     understood from the interior files that the full interior of
     the black and white images is intentional. To do so, it is
     necessary to indicate in text that you are displaying
     encrypted text and to indicate in both the interior and book
     description that it is a gag book.

(I'll leave the claims that it's "encrypted" *and* a "gag" for others to
sort out...)

Now, I'll be the first to admit that there's something very reasonable
about all of this. Their production lines have QA people who see a snow
crash and barf on it, which buggers things up, etc, etc. Except for one
thing: I don't feel like being 'reasonable.' This is a book, they're a
printer-publisher, and they've refused to print it based in large part
on the argument -- after much tooth-pulling -- that it might offend
someone. They can couch their argument in terms of production
efficiencies and consumer confusion (standard weapons in commercial
interests' war on culture), much as theocrats have suppressed books on
grounds of heresy, and as bluenoses have suppressed books on grounds of
obscenity, but the structural issue remains the same: one party wants to
print a book, other parties might not want it printed, and the
printer-publisher is the man in the middle.

Though I doubt very much that if I'd printed a _History of Televised
Static_, with details about where, when, and how each image was captured
and a scholarly introduction afterword, they would have empowered their
QA people to reject it.

But no matter: Volumes 2, 3, 4, etc are forthcoming, and I'll factor in
Createspace's issues into the encoding and design. This fight's been
going on for centuries now, and leaks aren't going away. I'm in no rush.

And, anyway, once I'd kicked the Amazon dinosaur its various extremities
started waking up. Amazon very graciously invited me to publish a Kindle
edition -- which of course would have the benefit that it doesn't need
to be printed and therefore doesn't face quite the same production
issues. So I used their online tools (same story) and was pleased to see
this message:

     Converting book file to Kindle format...

      \ | /
     --   --
      / | \

     This may take a few moments. If you have completed all
     required fields above, click "Save and Continue" to move
     forward while conversion continues.

I just logged in again to see their little wheel-of-industry widget
still spinning. It's been "converting" since Christmas eve.


     bit.ly/bookoleaks        > createspace.com

          "This title is currently on hold. This title is 
           still being prepared for sale and should be 
           ready soon."

     amzn.to/bookileaks       > amazon.com 

               "Out of Print--Limited Availability."


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