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Amazon responds to furor over limits on Prime sharing

The online-retailing giant insists the changes were meant to expand access for families.

Amazon wanted to allay criticism about sharing Prime accounts, to ensure all those online orders keep getting made. Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

Amazon has responded to an erupting controversy surrounding its popular Prime membership program, saying that a change it quietly made in regard to sharing accounts was meant to benefit customers, not restrict them.

Over the weekend, several news stories emerged that Amazon had begun clamping down on people sharing their Prime accounts with friends and family. Some members share their accounts to help defray the cost of a $99 membership, which includes unlimited two-day shipping, access to videos and music, and other perks. These stories pointed to the new Amazon Households program, which now lets a Prime user invite only one other adult onto the account using a separate log-in -- that's down from four adults under the prior program. Amazon Households, though, does allow for up to four children on each account and lets users share more perks than the previous program, which only allowed sharing of unlimited shipping.

Amazon Households was introduced in May, though without any announcements to allow the company to tweak the program after it rolled out, Amazon spokeswoman Julie Law said on Tuesday. Last week, some users may have noticed that the four-members sharing program was retired, though Law noted that Amazon has grandfathered in all shared Prime accounts under the prior program.

"We would give people plenty of notice before we did anything to those accounts," she said, adding, "We're still working on refining the whole experience ... so people should expect people to see tweaks to it."

That the change in the program elicited such a reaction speaks to the growing popularity of Prime, which has become the leading online-shopping membership service for US consumers. Prime is also critical to Amazon's future, since Prime members tend to spend roughly twice as much on Amazon's online store every year than nonmembers. The service has become so successful that competitors are looking to catch up, with Walmart testing its own unlimited shipping program, and startup Jet launching a new membership site last month.

Though Amazon's change may seem small to some people, it was quickly seen as a way for the company to restrict users from sharing their accounts with others -- something folks often do with Netflix or HBO Go video accounts. Amazon soon after responded to the dustup by offering reasons why the changes were meant to help, illustrating just how important Prime has become to the Seattle company. The membership service includes an estimated 44 million people in the US alone, so keeping those members happy is crucial to Amazon's future.

Part of this week's controversy stemmed from the fact that Amazon intends for members to share Prime only within a household -- a protocol the company doesn't seem to enforce all that much. Overall, the changes were meant to make it easier to share more of Prime's services within a family, with Amazon Households letting two adults share not only two-day shipping -- as with the prior program -- but also Amazon's video-streaming service and several other benefits.

For instance, Amazon Households requires the two adults on the account to be able to share credit cards -- a change made to let those users share purchased television shows. However, having shared credit cards may not sit well with dorm roommates or distant friends.

Despite the concerns raised, Law said the changes were not made for financial reasons. "It was how do we allow people to share more of their benefits -- particularly Prime Instant Video -- among a family," she said.

She added that Amazon doesn't actively seek out people skirting the rules on their memberships. So, not only are those grandfathered accounts still active, but also users who have shared one account log-in with multiple family members will likely still be able to do that without getting a nasty call from CEO Jeff Bezos.

"This change isn't related to those types of outliers," Law said about people using their accounts fraudulently. "This change was related to our most active Prime shoppers...It's something we wanted to offer our customers for a long time."