When corporate types gather to schmooze at expensive watering holes they talk about competition as an unalloyed public good. It's seen in Darwinian terms: companies engaged in a ceaseless battle for survival, with only the fittest emerging triumphant. But generally the discussion is couched in agreeably vague, general terms. The sordid realities of Darwinian competition — nature red in tooth and claw — are generally eschewed on the golf course and at the poolside.

Except at Amazon.com. Like the other titans of the online world — Google, Facebook, Yahoo and to a lesser extent Microsoft — Amazon is driven by data and algorithms. But not entirely. What many of its customers may not realize is that the results generated by Amazon's search engine are partly determined by promotional fees extracted from publishers. In his book "The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon," Brad Stone describes one campaign to exert pressure for better terms on the more vulnerable publishers. It was known internally as the gazelle project, after Bezos suggested "that Amazon should approach these small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle." (With a nice Orwellian touch, company lawyers later changed the name to the "small publisher negotiation program.")

That's a revealing metaphor: capitalism red in tooth and claw. And it's a useful antidote to the soothing PR of the corporations that now dominate our networked world. Up to now, they have succeeded in branding themselves as different in important ways from the bad old industrial behemoths of the past. Google has its much-vaunted "don't be evil" slogan, for example. Facebook just wants to help everyone to hook up to "share" and "like" stuff. Amazon is fanatically committed to the philosophy that you — the customer — are always right. And so on.