Censorship, Storefronts, and Publishing: the #AmazonFail

11/10/2010 By Shawn Burns

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.