Amazon’s conflicting censorship policy has had a chequered history when it comes to its policy regarding books with ’sensitive’ or ’adult’ content. In February 2009, a large group of books including those with gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans-gender (GLBT) themes lost their sales ranks on Amazon. When asked about this on different occasions by authors, Amazon responded: ’In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.’ Later, however, Amazon claimed that this was a technical error and there was no new Amazon policy on ‘adult’ titles. Moreover, Amazon stated that this error had affected books on various other themes, although no list was provided. It has been argued that this incident was in fact, a more deliberate action on the part of Amazon who, following consumer pressure, decided to change their stance.

More recently, Amazon has been caught up in another storm of consumer outrage regarding one of its book listings. Phillip Greave’s self-published book ‘Paedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child Lover’s Code of Conduct’ prompted a barrage of protest, with more than 3000 comments left on the comments page. Amazon’s original response was: ‘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.’ (The book-seller has taken a similar stance in the past with books which deny the holocaust and books on dogfighting). It also deleted over 100 negative reviews of the book as requested by the author on the grounds that reviewers had not read the book and were not posting helpful comments. However, it was quick to delist the book last week as media coverage and boycott campaigns grew exponentially. It was argued by many that this book exceeds the limits of free speech as it advocated an illegal and damaging activity. What is worrying to some is that, once again, Amazon changed its policy based on public outcry (rather than any clear policy on the freedom of expression). Strangely, another book on the same topic, ‘Understanding Loved Boys and Boy Lovers’, is still listed on the site. Amazon’s lack of consistency on this issue is most concerning (and confusing) leaving us to think it will act only when public pressure is applied and, even then, in an inconsistent manner.

In this era of self-publishing and downloading, this is an issue that will continue to crop up. Some argue that sites such as Amazon should be more responsible in monitoring what it lists while others maintain that this would constitute undesirable censorship by a private company (the question being ‘what makes a private company more qualified to censor books than the state?’). Defining what is appropriate and where freedom of speech prevails is a difficult task and one that has been faced by others too. Steve jobs has attracted criticism for denying iPhone apps that include political satire and porn, for example and, in 2001, eBay had to ban sales of Nazi memorabilia.


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