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Should an Amazon Boycott Include Its Original Series?

The sinister truth about the company’s streaming service.

Collage of characters from Amazon original series.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Amazon Studios.

Along with the usual internet roundups of the best deals on Amazon.com, this year’s holiday shopping season has also brought with it a surprisingly robust number of calls for shoppers to cancel their Amazon Prime subscriptions. Free two-day shipping, one of the perks of Prime membership, is hardly worth the brutal conditions for workers in Amazon warehouses, this argument goes. But what about the whole category of Amazon products that seemingly don’t involve the warehouses and shipping at all? The “everything store” also has its own streaming service, where it offers a library of movies and TV shows comparable to the ones on Netflix or Hulu. Is it OK to keep Prime to watch them, or subscribe to the video service on its own? How about using a friend or parent’s password? Surely that doesn’t count as supporting Amazon, right? Oh, and what if you’re one of the millions of people who read on a Kindle e-reader? Should you stop using that in protest, too?

Morgan Stanley has estimated, somehow, that 51 percent of American households are Amazon Prime members. And I know personally how hard it can be to divest yourself of Amazon. I was an early convert to Amazon—you can still look in my account history and see that it’s where I bought Backstreet Boys CDs as a tween in 1999. I changed my habits about five years ago, partly because I was working at the time in book publishing—the original industry Amazon is said to have “disrupted” through predatory practices—and partly because I read the now-classic Mother Jones undercover piece about treatment of its warehouse workers. But even as someone who’s been actively trying to boycott Amazon, I’ve still engaged with it a ton in the past few years. I got a trial Prime account to watch the first season of Transparent when it seemed like everyone was talking about it, and I later watched more shows when a roommate added Prime to our shared television. I also have a Kindle, and even though I try to only read books I get from the library on it, I know I’m contributing to Amazon’s coffers in a small way every time I check one out.

Discussion of the “human cost” of conveniences like Amazon Prime tends to focus, rightly so, on low-paid workers in fulfillment centers, the people who are physically picking items off of shelves and preparing orders for shipment, about whom all sorts of exploitation has been reported: injuries, lack of bathroom breaks, overwork, union-busting, etc. But when you buy a movie to watch on your computer, there is no badly treated worker who has to walk across a factory floor within a mandated number of seconds to get the product to you. Right?

For one thing, there are reasons far beyond Amazon’s warehouse labor practices to view the company writ large with suspicion. Criticism that Amazon uses monopolistic business practices dates back years. The company’s brutal culture also extends to its white-collar labor force. And of course, the thing that kicked off the most recent round of Amazon criticism has been the company’s decision to build headquarters in the New York and D.C. areas after a vulgar, dishonest publicity campaign that led smaller cities to think they were contenders. For this brave decision, Amazon will be rewarded mightily with tax breaks and subsidies. Continuing to subscribe to Amazon Prime for the movies and TV shows may not add to the stresses of low-level Amazon workers, but it does further empower the company that creates those conditions. (Of course, there’s a larger debate to be had about whether Amazon is any worse than the rest of the enterprises we continue to give our money to, but let’s try to stay on topic for now.)

It’s impossible to really separate Amazon’s consumer goods business from its digital content business, and that’s by design. The company’s express goal with its streaming service is to get more consumers hooked on Amazon Prime: “When we win a Golden Globe, it helps us sell more shoes,” Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has said. For lots of members, access to free movies and television, and especially Amazon’s expensive original series, will keep them happy with their subscriptions and coming back year after year—and ultimately spending more and more on Prime. Prime Instant Video is just another widget Amazon is peddling because it wants not only that membership fee but to continue increasing how much of your mental market share it takes up. The company wants everyone to use it for every single thing. Even if you become the rare Prime member who is able to watch movies and television through the service without becoming more consumed in the Amazon machine, the money you’re paying for the service will go to the same place in the end.

As a practical matter, shared and borrowed passwords for watching Amazon’s movies and shows are a dicier area. You might argue that by consuming the company’s content without paying for it, you’re sticking it to the man and fighting the good fight against Amazon. As someone who spent more time than I should have last fall stressed out about the fact that The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel existed and I couldn’t watch it, I too find it hard to ignore the siren song of original streaming programming. This is a pretty convenient justification for the millennial folk tradition of password sharing, but I’m not sure it works that way. The number crunchers at Amazon can count any time at all spent engaged with their products as a win, or at least a data point in the “more likely to subscribe again” column. And, obviously, someone is still paying Amazon so you can get your Sneaky Pete fix.

Continuing to read books on your Kindle seems like the most acceptable Amazon-related sin. Buying books from your local indie or borrowing (non-Kindle) copies from your library is a surer way to make sure none of your money goes to Amazon. But seeing as Amazon accounted for 83 percent of the U.S. e-book market in 2017, it might be best to acknowledge your powerlessness and instead look at that market as a cautionary tale. It illustrates pretty well how easy it is to get locked into spending all your money at one store: If you own a Kindle, you can’t read other book formats on it, so you have to also get your books from Amazon (or the library, but the library pays Amazon for them, and you pay for the library with your taxes). I don’t know if I’ll trash mine, but it makes an especially stark argument to ditch most Amazon services now.

Harsh but true: When you start asking ethical questions, it’s pretty difficult to rationalize a boycott of Amazon that doesn’t include all of Amazon. If it’s any consolation, I’ve heard Homecoming isn’t so great.