Censorship, Storefronts, and Publishing: the #AmazonFail

Amazon.com has been offering a “We won’t censor writers” defense for offering Kindle books for sale in their Kindle store that have some pretty nefarious content. The book being focused on today appears to be a how-to manual for crimes against children. (Cynical Editor’s Note: I don’t know of anyone who has downloaded and actually read the entire book to see if the content matches the description. This could be the biggest troll in recent history, but based on the other books available from the same author if it is a troll it’s a very elaborate one and frankly deserves attention just for the effort.)

Many people are upset with Amazon for selling these books. Many others claim that for Amazon to remove the books means Amazon is participating in censorship, and censorship (if we’re fair-minded, liberal free-thinkers) is always bad bad bad.

There is so much crap involved in this opinion that it’s hard to shovel it all.

First, censorship involves the government dictating what its citizens can and cannot say to each other. That’s the kind of censorship to guard against. There’s no slippery slope from Amazon filtering out content to a government crackdown on subversive expression.

Second, Amazon itself hiding behind the “we won’t censor” line is completely disingenuous, and also a little arrogant. What they are saying is that if it weren’t for them these writers would have no voice, so they have a responsibility to publish the books. Amazon is both marketplace and publisher, and in one sense they are right: in a world in which Amazon has won the war for market control, in which they are the only marketplace and the only publisher, then yes, choosing to filter out these works approaches something like the kind of censorship that is otherwise only possible in the political state that fighting censorship is supposed to prevent. But the market isn’t like that right now. Amazon isn’t the only game in town.

What that means isn’t that “it’s only a little censorship, so that’s okay”. What it means is that it isn’t censorship at all. It takes full market control for the publishing and marketing decisions of a single entity to qualify as censorship, and Amazon deciding to not publish and sell these books wouldn’t fit the bill.

So, they can’t really make the claim to be upholding some democratic principle that isn’t even threatened in the first place. What they are instead doing is saying that (since they get 65% of the proceeds from sales) they think it’s okay to provide publishing and marketing resources for anyone who wants to write anything, and that it’s okay to fund their shareholders from those proceeds. That’s the bottom line for Amazon. Freedom of speech is a red herring.

Third, because Amazon is now a publisher (they provide the platform for uploading content to the Kindle store), they have two sets of precedents available to them for not publishing indefensible how-to manuals for committing crimes against children. The first is the simple storefront precedent: store owners are under no obligation to carry material they don’t want to carry. The second is the publishing precedent: publishers are under no obligation to publish works they don’t want to publish, for whatever reason they have, including reasons related to content. Amazon’s uploading platform does not, as they seem to think, create an obligation to promote free-speech and censorship-free publishing; it gives them a long history of publishing decisions to look back on to see what the standards of practice for a publisher might look like. Publishers don’t have to fight free speech battles in rejecting manuscripts. Amazon’s platform does not put them in a new position; and yet they adopt a very radical approach to dealing with content issues. If they publish books like today’s #AmazonFail book, they aren’t doing so because they have to in order to avoid free speech entanglements. They are doing so despite having plenty of resources available for showcasing how filtering out that content is not the same as fighting a free speech battle.

All of that was about the censorship angle. But there is more to the discussion.

The problem with just saying “don’t sell the book” is that the platform seems to be automated, or nearly-so. In order to be reliable at filtering out content for publishing and marketing purposes Amazon would have to have a person at the other end reading the books and making publishing decisions like an editor at a publishing house does. But Amazon’s business model, and what makes the Kindle store great for idea-sharing in the first place, is that that there is no editor there that has to be convinced that an idea is worth sharing. Writers can go straight to collecting their royalties, and Amazon can go straight to collecting revenue for the sale of the books.

Not employing editors on the publishing end is one thing; refusing to remove books from the store after complaints is another. And it’s not a moral stand, it’s a bet. It’s a bet that Amazon’s customers won’t be upset enough to be worth enforcing the inappropriate content policy it makes writers agree to when they publish in the first place. It’s a bet that in the end Amazon can make more money by not removing content, under a general policy, than it will lose by refusing to develop a more nuanced standard.

Further, removing this book sets a precedent that, though not impossible to deal with, puts Amazon in the awkward position of having to outline a moral position on what they will publish and sell. And outlining, and enforcing, that position requires employing not just button-pushers or keyword algorithms, but someone qualified to tell the difference between, for example, gay interest books and how-to manuals for committing murder. Amazon doesn’t want to have to defend a line, so they have no line. Most of the rest of us, though we disagree about where the line is, find it to be far away from instructions on getting away with abuse.

But I actually don’t trust any company to employ someone who is competent to make that decision. I am afraid that if pressed on the point Amazon will end up removing things that shouldn’t be removed. In this way Amazon is actually right to fan the flames of censorship fear. Not because we should fear that someone with an agenda is removing books they disagree with, but because someone incompetent is removing books they don’t understand.

So in the end I’m not sure where I stand on what Amazon should do, whether they should remove this book, other books like it, have a full-time content narc, have an automated content algorithm, or allow all books to stay up. I just know that I think what they say is ridiculous.

44 comments

1 Anonymous { 11.10.10 at 3:42 PM }

FYI, @iasshole downloaded it today and is tweeting its contents. It appears to be some batshit craziness.

2 Thedgoddess { 11.10.10 at 3:46 PM }

Yeah, pretty much sums up how I feel about it.

3 Trish Smith { 11.10.10 at 3:48 PM }

Excellent, well-thought-out post. Nicely done.

4 Trish Smith { 11.10.10 at 10:48 PM }

Excellent, well-thought-out post. Nicely done.

5 LisaCrazyAdventuresi { 11.10.10 at 4:02 PM }

And pornography, yet, despite their TOS saying they don't sell that, they are.

6 LisaCrazyAdventuresinParenting { 11.10.10 at 11:02 PM }

And pornography, yet, despite their TOS saying they don’t sell that, they are.

7 Triplezmom { 11.10.10 at 4:02 PM }

From what I've read of @iasshole's tweets, I'm pretty sure that this is a how-to book for how to commit a crime. A crime that is a worldwide problem and can affect any child, anywhere. So while I don't trust some underpaid intern at Amazon to check books before publishing, I do expect them to remove a book that could harm thousands of children.

8 Tweets that mention Censorship, Storefronts, and Publishing: the #AmazonFail -- Topsy.com { 11.10.10 at 3:05 PM }

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Shannon McKarney, BackpackingDad, Trish Smith, Melissa Dimock, James and others. James said: RT @BackpackingDad: Censorship, Storefronts, and Publishing: the #AmazonFail http://goo.gl/fb/x5E5C [...]

9 Ritajarens { 11.10.10 at 4:06 PM }

It's as though you had a PhD. :)

I'm going to post on this tomorrow once I see if anything happens overnight.

10 Pseudostoops { 11.10.10 at 4:06 PM }

Well said.

11 MidLifeMama { 11.10.10 at 4:27 PM }

Nice post. It does appear that this position they supposedly are taking is in direct contradiction to their own stated policies about not publishing items that provide instructions on how to commit a crime. I do want them to take it down. I don't think that Amazon is the place to give these thoughts and ideas a place to gain a footing. I don't want them to apply MY moral code, just you know, one that fits into the law.

12 Miss Britt { 11.10.10 at 5:15 PM }

I have mad respect for a well-thought-out post that doesn't feel the need to end with a definitive judgment one way or the other.

Like this one.

13 Lunasea237 { 11.10.10 at 5:22 PM }

They're going to have to start allowing readers to flag inappropriate content, and then have somebody (or committee, I admit I don't know how that part's done) review the flags when they hit a certain limit.

I'm more annoyed by their defense than I am by their selling it in the first place. A how-to manual on getting away with pedophilia? Taking it down seems like a no-brainer to me. Now I've got people on twitter arguing with me that it's like banning the Bible. Really?

14 Lunasea237 { 11.11.10 at 12:22 AM }

They’re going to have to start allowing readers to flag inappropriate content, and then have somebody (or committee, I admit I don’t know how that part’s done) review the flags when they hit a certain limit.

I’m more annoyed by their defense than I am by their selling it in the first place. A how-to manual on getting away with pedophilia? Taking it down seems like a no-brainer to me. Now I’ve got people on twitter arguing with me that it’s like banning the Bible. Really?

15 Avitable { 11.10.10 at 5:31 PM }

I've got my own analysis on this posting soon, and I think you reach some valid points. I think that while "there’s no slippery slope from Amazon filtering out content to a government crackdown on subversive expression", there is a slippery slope that can occur Amazon using morality to censor material.

I think that corporations like Amazon.com have a moral imperative NOT to censor any material unless it's illegal. And anyone who claims that this material is illegal on its face is being ignorant – without reading it and keeping the legal definition of what's "illegal" in mind, nobody can make that statement.

16 Avitable { 11.11.10 at 12:31 AM }

I’ve got my own analysis on this posting soon, and I think you reach some valid points. I think that while “there’s no slippery slope from Amazon filtering out content to a government crackdown on subversive expression”, there is a slippery slope that can occur Amazon using morality to censor material.

I think that corporations like Amazon.com have a moral imperative NOT to censor any material unless it’s illegal. And anyone who claims that this material is illegal on its face is being ignorant – without reading it and keeping the legal definition of what’s “illegal” in mind, nobody can make that statement.

17 Daddy Geek Boy { 11.10.10 at 5:36 PM }

You make a great point here. As a business, it's up to Amazon to decide what they sell and don't sell. It's up to us, the consumer, if we want to shop there. Apple has very tight controls over what apps they will sell for the iPhone. I don't see the masses not buying it as a result.

Amazon needs to figure out what they stand for. Their response to this will say a lot about them as a company.

18 Daddy Geek Boy { 11.11.10 at 12:36 AM }

You make a great point here. As a business, it’s up to Amazon to decide what they sell and don’t sell. It’s up to us, the consumer, if we want to shop there. Apple has very tight controls over what apps they will sell for the iPhone. I don’t see the masses not buying it as a result.

Amazon needs to figure out what they stand for. Their response to this will say a lot about them as a company.

19 Backpacking Dad { 11.10.10 at 5:36 PM }

It's not censorship unless Amazon controls the market. That was the point of

the first part of the post. (I've read other posts that actually make the

claim/case that Amazon DOES control the market to this extent. I don't know

about that, really, and I think it's probably wrong, but at least the case

there is stronger that it's censorship.) Here, I argue it's not censorship,

so claims stemming from the censorship premise don't follow.

If you mean that Amazon has a moral imperative to NOT REFUSE TO PUBLISH any

material unless it's illegal then I'm not sure you're right, unless you

conflate that with censorship, which I don't. Except in the case, as I said

above, that Amazon does actually control the market. I do have worries about

Amazon deciding what to publish.

20 Backpacking Dad { 11.11.10 at 12:36 AM }

It’s not censorship unless Amazon controls the market. That was the point of
the first part of the post. (I’ve read other posts that actually make the
claim/case that Amazon DOES control the market to this extent. I don’t know
about that, really, and I think it’s probably wrong, but at least the case
there is stronger that it’s censorship.) Here, I argue it’s not censorship,
so claims stemming from the censorship premise don’t follow.

If you mean that Amazon has a moral imperative to NOT REFUSE TO PUBLISH any
material unless it’s illegal then I’m not sure you’re right, unless you
conflate that with censorship, which I don’t. Except in the case, as I said
above, that Amazon does actually control the market. I do have worries about
Amazon deciding what to publish.

21 Anonymous { 11.10.10 at 6:51 PM }

"First, censorship involves the government dictating what its citizens can and cannot say to each other."

that was more or less the entire premise of my post today. that censorship applies to citizens. i used to own a small business. just because the constitution would allow for our employees to call one of our customers a stupid bitch does not mean that our company should tolerate such behavior.

i would argue that it's not censorship, but rather setting policies and sticking with them. though, i agree, it would create a bit of a slippery slope, i'd rather do that than have clowns like this guy openly championing pedophilia. can you imagine the pain your family would have to endure if it had a child that endured such horror? talk about salt being dumped in an open wound while this clown enjoys his fifteen minutes.

what's next? a book by Charles Manson entitled Kill 'em with Kindness? or perhaps The Sensitive Side of Snuff?

well done, my friend. great post.

22 beta dad { 11.10.10 at 7:30 PM }

This is the smartest thing I've read about the Amazon thing. It doesn't offer any solutions, of course, but you've really laid out the territory well.

23 beta dad { 11.11.10 at 2:30 AM }

This is the smartest thing I’ve read about the Amazon thing. It doesn’t offer any solutions, of course, but you’ve really laid out the territory well.

24 Liz Gumbinner { 11.10.10 at 9:15 PM }

Thanks for a really sharp post acknowledging the complexity of the whole thing. It's refreshing to see clarity of thought and not just pure emotion, which is hard.

I don't believe in censorship. If it's indeed legal for him to publish his book. let him self-publish it and sell it on a street corner–before being beaten by an angry mob wielding lead pipes – that's not illegal right?

This isn't Harry Potter or Catcher in the Rye. It's a manual on how to commit sexual assault on a minor.

25 Liz Gumbinner { 11.10.10 at 9:25 PM }

Update: the book is down. 404 error.

Update again: It's not down. Amazon hates itself.

26 Backpacking Dad { 11.10.10 at 9:26 PM }

Possible crash. I'm withholding my applause for now.

27 TwentyFourAtHeart { 11.10.10 at 10:02 PM }

I knew you'd write a great post on this, and you did.

28 marvi { 11.10.10 at 10:47 PM }

very well said.

29 marvi { 11.11.10 at 5:47 AM }

very well said.

30 Kristen { 11.10.10 at 11:17 PM }

I completely agree with the first part of your post. But in the end, it sounds like you are ambivalent about censoring this book if it might lead to other things being arbitrarily pulled. But really, isn't that a small price to pay to get a molestation manual off the virtual shelves?

31 Kristen { 11.11.10 at 6:17 AM }

I completely agree with the first part of your post. But in the end, it sounds like you are ambivalent about censoring this book if it might lead to other things being arbitrarily pulled. But really, isn’t that a small price to pay to get a molestation manual off the virtual shelves?

32 Backpacking Dad { 11.10.10 at 11:24 PM }

I think Amazon would be stupid to refuse to pull the book on free speech

grounds. I don't think they'd be stupid to pull the book for commercial

reasons. They aren't the government, and they aren't fighting the

government, so it's not a 1st Amendment issue. But I can't say I trust them

to design a consistent policy that would ensure that all and only these

types of books are filtered out. What I'm ambivalent about is offering them

a practical solution that allows them to remain consistent in the future. If

all I cared about was this situation I'd say pull it.

33 Backpacking Dad { 11.11.10 at 6:24 AM }

I think Amazon would be stupid to refuse to pull the book on free speech
grounds. I don’t think they’d be stupid to pull the book for commercial
reasons. They aren’t the government, and they aren’t fighting the
government, so it’s not a 1st Amendment issue. But I can’t say I trust them
to design a consistent policy that would ensure that all and only these
types of books are filtered out. What I’m ambivalent about is offering them
a practical solution that allows them to remain consistent in the future. If
all I cared about was this situation I’d say pull it.

34 baltimoregal { 11.11.10 at 5:44 AM }

A well-thought-out assessment of the #amazonfail situation. Thanks for writing this!

35 baltimoregal { 11.11.10 at 12:44 PM }

A well-thought-out assessment of the #amazonfail situation. Thanks for writing this!

36 Anonymous { 11.11.10 at 6:03 AM }

Excellent writing! Really well thought out post, and I agree whole heartedly!

37 Anonymous { 11.11.10 at 1:03 PM }

Excellent writing! Really well thought out post, and I agree whole heartedly!

38 Tweets that mention Censorship, Storefronts, and Publishing: the #AmazonFail — Backpacking Dad -- Topsy.com { 11.11.10 at 5:29 AM }

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by BaltimoreGal, karen newhouse. karen newhouse said: For me, this is the closest to how I feel..Brilliantly explained. Thanks for writing this. @BackpackingDad http://bit.ly/dbLJcn #amazonfail [...]

39 Internet, I’m Proud of You – Outside Voice { 11.11.10 at 8:22 AM }

[...] Backpacking Dad: A slippery slope argument only works when you show that the slope is SLIPPERY, not that it’s a slope. [...]

40 Loukia { 11.11.10 at 12:55 PM }

Well thought out post. I can't think anymore about this topic because man, I have a headache. I did of course blog about it until the wee hours of the morning though, so my thoughts and view on this topic are there.

A few years ago, Chapters pulled Mein Kempf off the shelves, and I'm not sure if it's back now. I think THAT was totally wrong, for many reasons. This book on pe*ophilia that has caused so much controvery should be removed – glad it's not there anymore.

41 Loukia { 11.11.10 at 7:55 PM }

Well thought out post. I can’t think anymore about this topic because man, I have a headache. I did of course blog about it until the wee hours of the morning though, so my thoughts and view on this topic are there.
A few years ago, Chapters pulled Mein Kempf off the shelves, and I’m not sure if it’s back now. I think THAT was totally wrong, for many reasons. This book on pe*ophilia that has caused so much controvery should be removed – glad it’s not there anymore.

42 Lizditz { 11.11.10 at 2:58 PM }

Here's the link to "Totie Fields" (iasshole)'s post
http://iasshole.org/?p=2138

43 Melissa(ConfessionsO { 11.11.10 at 5:48 PM }

I don't like that they were hiding behind the censorship front either. They can exercise their own freedom of speech and choice by choosing not to publish it. I'm glad they removed it. Businesses should have some social responsibility when it comes to child safety. The end.

44 CandaceApril { 11.11.10 at 6:58 PM }

Very cogent post. I have a visceral reaction to both pedophilia and censorship…but my understanding is that there are different levels of protection based on the type of speech and who is doing the censoring.

And I also agree that while everyone has the right to say / write what they wish (as long as it isn't defined as illegal), and that it would be very difficult to write a policy that would catch books like this but not The Anarchist's Cookbook or Lolita or what-have-you…that does not mean that Amazon does not have the right to pull books at its discretion.

And as a consumer, I have a right to complain or not shop there or whatever action I think appropriate.

And if Amazon pulls books based on a political agenda with which I disagree, then I'd have that same right.

And I don't see Amazon as having a moral obligation to be comprehensive in its publishing–although again, I do get a little twinge when it comes to discarding certain written works, especially when the entity doing the discarding is so very huge (although still not a monopoly, as you point out).

Which is all to say that although my initial reaction is "With unlimited resources, how do you decide what is publishable and what is not…?", the more I think about it, the more I'm leaning towards your argument…