by Bob Cesca
Several weeks ago, Amazon screwed me.
In 2009, I signed up for the Amazon Associates program in which web publishers can earn commissions by selling products listed with the online retail colossus. Eventually, I found it was easier and more lucrative to post a generalized "Amazon link" that'd connect my readers and podcast listeners directly to the front page of Amazon where they could shop for whatever they'd want, and I'd get a commission on those sales.
In other words, readers who clicked my Amazon Link were taken to the front page of the site, where a cookie would track their purchases, eventually crediting me with a six or seven percent commission on the sale. For a few years, it was slow going mainly because I never promoted it on my show or in my articles. But once I began mentioning it on my podcast, it really took off. By 2016, the "beer money" revenue grew into a serious fraction of my monthly income -- it was significant enough that it became on of my top three or four sources of revenue. (As a media guy, my income is diversified over several areas.)
As far as I was concerned, it was the best thing ever. I could make decent income by doing practically nothing except to mention the existence of the link on my podcast. In those terms, it was the best of both worlds: huge income in exchange for very little effort.
On October 26, I was just wrapping up a Thursday show when I received the following email:
Hello from the Associates Program,
We are writing to tell you that effective as of today’s date, Amazon is terminating your Associates account. Under the terms of the Operating Agreement, we may terminate your account at any time, with or without cause. This decision is final and not subject to appeal.http://www.amazon.com/associates
It is important that you immediately remove all Amazon Content from your Site(s). Please be aware that any other accounts you have, or may open in the future, may be closed without payment of any fees. Amazon reserves all other rights and claims.
Because you are not in compliance with the Operating Agreement, Amazon will not pay you any outstanding advertising fees related to your account. Amazon exercises its right under the Operating Agreement to withhold fees based on violations, which include the following:
-You are incentivizing others to visit the Amazon Site via your Special Links by offering rebates, discounts, points, donations to charity, or other incentive.
Thank you for your participation in the Amazon Associates Program.
At first, as panic began to wash over me, I thought it was a phishing scam -- hackers wanted me to click on a spoofed link to verify my account, thereby nabbing my login information. But upon further inspection, it became clear the email was on-the-level. Amazon terminated my Associates account. Worse, they made it abundantly clear that there's no chance for appeal and that I was forfeiting the commissions I had earned for August, September and October.
In the interest of full disclosure, we're talking about several thousand dollars they still owe me. ZAP! Gone. Buh-bye. And that doesn't take into consideration what I would've earned during the forthcoming holiday season.
I, of course, was extremely confused and more than a little freaked out. It turned out, the reason for my termination was that I was telling my podcast listeners that by shopping through my Amazon Link, they'd be "supporting the show." Evidently, I came to learn, telling people the truth about the commissions and how those commissions "support the show" was my termination-worthy trespass. To be clear: my violation was saying that shopping through my Amazon Link "helps support the show." That's all. That's why they terminated me.
It's the dumbest thing I've ever heard. First of all, how should Associates pitch their Amazon Link to differentiate it from merely typing in the amazon.com URL in a web browser? There are several ways for viewers to access Amazon, after all. Why should fans of my show take the extra steps to go to bobcesca.com, then to click the Amazon Link only to be taken the front page of Amazon, when they could've easily just typed "amazon.com" in their browsers and eliminated all kinds of additional clicks? Of course, the reason for the extra steps is to support the podcast and blog they enjoy, while also shopping for whatever product they want. Duh.
Worse yet, Amazon treated my infraction as if I committed industrial espionage or some sort of repeated terms-of-service violation despite warnings. There weren't any warnings. None. Ever. Unlike Google Adsense, which sends terms-of-service violation warnings to allow us the opportunity to fix any oversights, Amazon clearly has a zero tolerance policy, and it sucks eggs. One violation (which isn't a real valid violation as far as I'm concerned) and BOOM! Terminated. Oh, and they'll seize money you're owed, too. It's that punitive and that unforgivingly nasty.
What I learned is that there's nothing in the terms of service saying you can't say "support the show." It's an arbitrary interpretation of the violation the Associates team excerpted from their Operators Agreement and pasted into the email they sent, which tells me something's really, really hinky in Bezos Land.
Speaking of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon...
The night I was terminated, the night of Thursday, October 26, Amazon's stock price skyrocketed, making Bezos the wealthiest man in the world. I'm not exaggerating. Bezos is the richest human being in the universe. So, there was no chance to make a case to shareholders that terminating my agreement would eliminate around $20,000-per-month in gross sales through my link. Yes, my readers and listeners were buying that much stuff every month, and Amazon, being the corporate giant it is, just said, "Feh! We don't need you." (For months, Amazon informed us it was eliminating the aStores feature on October 27, the day after I was terminated. The aStore program allowed website owners to host their own Amazon storefront. I wonder if killing that feature was the reason for the overnight stock price jump.)
One last thing. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires that content providers explain to readers and listeners alike that we're earning commissions on sales through our links. Put another way, federal law requires us to essentially say, Clicking our link helps support our online thing.
Again, something's hinky in Bezos Land, and I haven't ruled out legal representation. But I'd also like to check in with Sam Harris and David Pakman, well-known podcast hosts who were also terminated by Amazon for the same violation. And there are many, many others.
As Rachel Maddow says: watch this space.
The reason I'm bringing this up now is to emphasize the future-alerting dangers inherent in the commissioner of the FCC, Ajit Pai, eliminating net neutrality regulations. When it happens, internet service providers can easily steamroll over independent content providers like me, and, for that matter, definitely like The Daily Banter. ISPs will be able to shut down sites they don't like, or they could charge prohibitive rates, forcing small publishers to accept slower internet speeds for their content, while mega-corporations like Amazon will be able to afford more bandwidth, giving it an advantage over other retailers that might not be able to afford the same bandwidth tier.
We're all so desperately at the mercy of the corporate internet, and it's getting more treacherous as time wears on. Our lives and our friendships are entirely held hostage by the whimsy of Mark Zuckerberg, who's become a puppetmaster for almost the entire industrialized human society. Those of us who rely upon various online services for our incomes can be decimated in a nanosecond, either by shenanigans similar to the ones being pulled by Amazon, or by data breaches like the one that hit Equifax this year. What will happen if Facebook suddenly disappears? What about Go Fund Me or Patreon? What about PayPal? What about the ISP that hosts your online business? YouTube recently canceled its subscription service in which content providers could charge monthly fees for exclusive videos, leaving countless participants who relied on that income without any recourse. Done. Gone. Good luck replacing that income.
Sure, there are alternatives. I've signed up with the Target and eBay affiliate programs, similar to my old Amazon Link, but I have to start from scratch all over again, convincing my listeners to incorporate these new links into their online shopping habits. It took years to do that with Amazon.
What was originally a freeform, online Wild West atmosphere where we could survive or starve based on our own ingenuity is slowly being consumed and consolidated by corporate juggernauts -- juggernauts who can snuff us out in a heartbeat. None of us are entirely safe from Silicon Valley tech monsters, and it's only getting worse. Repealing net neutrality will be seen as a watershed moment, and not in a good way. Think: the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine, or the elimination of regulations against media consolidation. Repealing net neutrality is actually far worse. It's making us more reliant upon corporations, while giving corporations the unfettered Wild West atmosphere they want in order to control us, our voices and our wallets. It's far more direct than the crushing media deregulatory actions taken in the '80s and '90s.
Liberals and conservatives alike will be destroyed in the wake of the FCC's move against net neutrality, and the corporate takeover of the internet will be complete. There's one last chance to stop it, but time is running out and one of the champions in support of neutrality, Sen. Al Franken, has been benched. The timing couldn't be worse. Now, we all have to step up and fight -- in many cases for our own personal survival. It's that important.