March 18, 2014 / 2:25 PM / in 4 years

COLUMN-Amazon's price increase, Congressional whistleblowers, and a question for President Obama

By Steven Brill

March 18 (Reuters) - (This is the latest installment of Steven Brill’s weekly column “Stories I’d Like to See.”) 1. Are customers really upset at the Amazon Prime price increase?

The day after Amazon raised the annual subscription price for its Prime service from $79 to $99, the New York Times ran a story headlined, “Complaints As Amazon Raises Cost of Prime.” I found the reporting lacking and the headline unfair.

I imagine if I were reporting the story, I could find people to quote grousing about the 25 percent increase. Indeed, Times reporter David Streitfeld did it the easy way, going on Amazon’s own customer comments page.

But everyone I’ve talked to who subscribes to Prime - membership not only delivers everything from a book to a flat-screen TV to your doorstep for free, but also provides free movies and TV shows and a free book-lending library - thinks it is a hard-to-believe bargain at $99 or $79. (One happy customer in my office thought the price had gone from $179 to $199.)

Moreover, Amazon’s notice to customers - noting that the price hasn’t gone up in nine years, while all the benefits and product offerings have improved dramatically - was candid and convincing.

But maybe I‘m wrong. Which suggests an idea for a more enlightening story than the one the Times did: Someone ought to do a rigorous market survey of Prime customers to see not only whether they like the price increase (who likes price increases?), but whether they will continue to subscribe.

It’s an important question. Whether Amazon can succeed in realizing more of this dependable, recurring subscription revenue from its trailblazing service will say a lot about whether the company will continue to revolutionize retailing. 2. What if Congress had blown the whistle on the NSA?

In the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosures about the National Security Agency, several members of the House and Senate intelligence oversight committees have said, or implied, that they wished they could have spoken out about what they perceived to be the NSA’s overreach when they were briefed about the surveillance programs. They are prevented from doing so, they have said, because they are bound to secrecy as members of the security-cleared committee.

Is that true? Could a member of Congress be prosecuted for revealing classified information on the floor of the House or Senate? Doesn’t the Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause bar members from being arrested or prosecuted for carrying out their duties on the floor of the House or Senate?

Maybe, but the clause does make an exception for treason or felonious conduct. Would this qualify? If so, would that prevent any member of the legislative branch from speaking out against any government activity, however out of bounds, as long as it has been classified?

In 1973, when the courts temporarily enjoined further publication of the Pentagon Papers, then-Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska read from them on the Senate floor and had the entire classified document read into the Congressional Record.

Gravel was not prosecuted. However, an aide who had helped him obtain the paper was subpoenaed in an investigation into whether the aide had helped reveal classified material. But the Supreme Court quashed the subpoena, ruling the aide was also covered by the Speech or Debate Clause - as long as he was performing an official act for a member of Congress.

So, did any of the members of Congress who say they were worried about the NSA’s activities consider speaking out with the Speech or Debate Clause in mind? Would they have been protected?

And if they had spoken out, how might that have affected the congressional intelligence committees’ ability to get the access they need in the future to oversee intelligence activities?

3. Somebody ought to ask the president

Maybe this has happened and I’ve missed it, but here’s another NSA-related story: At President Barack Obama’s next news conference, someone should ask him if he knew that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal phone was being monitored by his security officials. It’s had to tell which answer would reflect more badly on him.

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