The Censorship Problem at Amazon

As a private company, Amazon has the right to determine which products are sold at its websites throughout the world. Increasingly, however, Amazon is being criticized for a lack of clarity on how they make these decisions, with advocates accusing the company of both practicing censorship and profiting from controversial texts. Complicating matters is the role of self-publishing, or print-on-demand books, that can be created, uploaded, and offered for sale at Amazon by anyone with an internet connection.

The latest controversy stems from a complaint from the Muslim Council of Britain, accusing Amazon of profiting from ebooks containing “hate, terror, and violence.” According to the Daily Mail, the ebook at the center of the Muslim Council’s complaint is Jake Neuman’s Prophet Muhammad: Monster of History, which “includes images of a Koran being burned and a woman being hanged.” In response to this book, the Muslim Council of Britain has “called for Amazon to ‘take proper responsibility’ for the content of the books on its site,” adding “‘Freedom of expression should not be unlimited, and publications that cause anti-Muslim hatred, anti-Jewish hatred or homophobic hatred should not be allowed.’”

In response to this call, Jo Glanville of Free Speech Debate has argued that part of the problem is Amazon’s unclear publishing guidelines and has called on the company to clarify their position: “Clearer guidelines are needed to protect free speech online and that should include material that causes offence. Expecting virtual booksellers, hosts and publishers to operate as taste and decency police would introduce unaccountable censorship based on subjective criteria.”

Amazon’s Content Guidelines are just that — guidelines that are open to interpretation. Causing particular ire to Ms. Glanville is the “Offensive material” guidelines that lack specificity:

What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect. This includes items such as crime-scene photos or human organs and body parts. reserves the right to determine the appropriateness of items sold on our site. Also, be aware of cultural differences and sensitivities. Some items may be acceptable in one country, but unacceptable in another. Please keep in mind our global community of customers.

The one voice not heard from in this specific debate has been Amazon itself. The company is not new to controversy, and its past decisions have further muddied the waters. The Daily Mail reports that consumers can currently purchase “an ebook entitled Reverend Rapist, which describes a priest sexually assaulting a young girl,” and that “other titles included TNT FAQ and How to Make Nitroglycerin, which provide instructions for making explosives, as well as ebooks which were simply made up of personal attacks on members of the public — thought to be by disgruntled ex-spouses or partners.”

Yet the company has also banned multiple titles. It first defended and then banned The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: A Child-lover’s Code of Conduct, initially arguing that “Amazon believes it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable. Amazon does not support or promote hatred or criminal acts, however, we do support the right of every individual to make their own purchasing decisions” before banning the book. Amazon has also created confusion over unclear decisions to ban certain incest- and underage-based erotica but not others, to ban the WikiLeaks website, and the banning of yaoi manga without similar bans of sexually-explicit heterosexual graphic novels.

While anti-censorship advocates like Ms. Glanville argue that Amazon should let consumers decide what they want to purchase and pro-censorship advocates like Richard Mollett, chief executive of the Publisher’s Association, believe Amazon needs to do more self-policing regarding content, both sides are urging Amazon to clarify their Content Guidelines.

Such a request is risky for both sides, of course, as clearer guidelines will inevitably favor one side over the other.

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Mark Bousquet is the Assistant Director of Core Writing at the University of Nevada, Reno, and reviews movies and television programs at Atomic Anxiety.