A post this morning describing how you can tweak the Book Depository to get cheaper prices resulted in several commenters suggesting it was unethical to even discuss how to do that, let alone actually doing that. I don’t see the same kinds of reactions when Lifehacker discusses using BitTorrent to download TV shows or setting up proxies to view Hulu content — but if you’re being logical and rational, there’s actually no real difference between the two topics.
In the original post, I noted that the technique (which involves changing cookies so that you appear to be in the UK) was controversial, and that I personally wouldn’t use it. That didn’t stop several commenters suggesting it was “bad form”, “crappy” and “pathetic” to even highlight its existence. I didn’t find the arguments made for that point of view (both here and on other sites) very convincing. Some of that is do with the arguments raised in this specific case, and some of it derives from what I’ve always thought was a demonstrably selective morality amongst a large proportion of the population when it comes to these kinds of hacks.
Let’s break down the argument. Self-evidently, if Book Depository has assumed you’re based in the UK and calculates its costs accordingly, it will end up out of pocket once those goods ship to Australia instead, and that could damage its business. Here’s what commenters Bob and Steve had to say:
It _is_ unethical to use this technique. You’re intentionally deceiving a well-meaning company to their financial detriment . . .
Book Depository have made a positive contribution to the book distribution business and you are offering advice to people to mess the company about.
There’s at least two problems with this specific line of argument:
Is the Book Depository really a good thing? Whether you think Book Depository has made “a positive contribution” depends on your point of view. If you’re a local bookseller, you’re unlikely to be a fan. From a consumer point of view, you also don’t have to look too far to find accounts of people experiencing poor service from the company.
The “free shipping” issue. As defenders of the technique point out, Book Depository’s marketing technique is to promote “free shipping”, but in fact it is doing something different and more subtle: building shipping prices into its titles, but not making that obvious. A regular ecommerce site would determine your location by asking for your address, and would set the prices at that stage. By using IP information and cookies to deduce and set your location, Book Depository can claim “free shipping” while still varying its prices to cover the associated costs.
That’s a clever marketing technique, but it creates an issue: once a price has been set, the Book Depository process can’t say “Sorry, we need to charge you more to cover shipping” once you enter your address without looking like an outright liar. If it promoted “the cheapest books”, it could calculate postage at the end of the transaction based on shipping address, and still probably offer you a good deal. But doing that would mean losing what has been its main selling point, so its best hope is that no-one will find a way to work around the issue. But that, as we can see, hasn’t happened.
Given that, I don’t know that the defence stands up in this case. But regardless, the essence of the argument as a general proposition goes like this: You’re knowingly using a deliberate trick to undermine an existing business model, and that’s wrong. There’s also a subtext: I like this business, and I don’t want you destroying it.
Now let’s consider what happens when you download a TV show via Channel BT, or work around geoblocking to access Hulu or iPlayer. That’s knowingly using a deliberate trick (downloading a non-legal copy or using a proxy) to undermine an existing business model (TV, whether ad or subscription supported). In other words, it’s the exact same behaviour, but I suspect you would have to look a long distance to find any consumers who would argue that was wrong with the same fervency as we’ve seen here.
In part, I suspect it’s a failure of imagination. It’s easy to see how having to pay more postage for each book will get expensive. It’s less obvious how downloading a show rather than watching it locally results in a TV station not attracting as much advertising revenue. But in both cases, the revenue that the company can earn from a given business activity is being reduced.
The second part of the proposition is somewhat different, since we clearly generally agree TV networks are untrustworthy and don’t seem concerned about earning our loyalty. That suggests they’re running their business badly.
However, the legitimate response to a badly-run business is to find an alternative legitimate source, not to find an illegal source for the same goods on the grounds that we don’t like the current one. Perhaps if we really enjoy a show, we might say we plan to buy the DVD when it comes out and will download in the meantime (though the DVD in most cases wouldn’t exist if there hadn’t been a loyal TV audience in the first place, so it’s perhaps not quite as simple as that). Regardless, arguing for the selective destruction of businesses based on whether you like them doesn’t seem like a very defensible ethical stance.
Note that I’m not suggesting any of these individual commenters themselves are hypocrites who are pro-BitTorrent but anti-bargain-hunting; for all I know, they might entirely shun downloading TV for exactly the same reasons as me. But I know that anything we publish explaining how to more easily access TV content from overseas ends up being massively popular. It’s very evident that lots of people want to do it, and no-one seems at all concerned in the slightest about the fact that doing so will impact on the businesses producing and/or broadcasting that content. Ethics change over time, and in this case there’s a clear emerging (but not universal) consensus. Still, I can’t see that the issues involved are any different with the Book Depository tweak. If you’re happy to circumvent regional restrictions on a stream, why wouldn’t you be happy to minimise the price you pay for books?
If the Book Depository can work out a way to stop people using this hack, you certainly won’t see me claiming that as unfair. (It could stop it right now by being more transparent, but that seems unlikely.) In the meantime, Lifehacker isn’t going to restrict itself to discussing hacks that are guaranteed not to offend any conceivable sense of ethics. If that happened, we’d never discuss BitTorrent or Hackintosh or a bunch of other issues and ideas (or run features like Evil Week).
OK, I’ve had my say. Your thoughts, as always, are welcome in the comments.