February 11, 2020
Amazon has been quietly removing Nazi books from its listings
by Athena Bryan
For The New York Times, David Streitfeld reports that the online super store has been taking down listings for Nazi books including two books by David Duke and several titles by the founder of the American Nazi Party.
What is, on its face, a positive move on the part of our corporate overlords, leads us straight into the same question that Facebook and Twitter have been struggling over for the past couple years: who has the right to monitor content, what are the standards, and who controls them.
The Times estimates that Amazon controls two thirds of the market for print and digital books (perfectly normal, perfectly healthy), but the massive online retailer is framing itself as a typical bookstore and arguing that its authority is based on those same grounds: “Booksellers make decisions every day about what selection of books they choose to offer.”
All the usual concerns with this development are aired in Streifeld’s column in the voices of the few, proud independent bookstore owners who are willing to openly speak critically of Amazon. Danny Caine of the Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas, sums up the gist of the dilemma nicely: “I’m not going to argue for the wider distribution of Nazi material, but I still don’t trust Amazon to be the arbiters of free speech. What if Amazon decided to pull books representing a less despicable political viewpoint? Or books critical of Amazon’s practices?”
That is the question that underlies every one of these debates. The only issue with such an assertion is that it is beside the point, legally speaking. We may enjoy debating the moral question of where our freedom of speech begins and ends, but to the law, the issue is not if we have the First Amendment right to express ourselves or if Amazon has a right to hamper it—it’s if Amazon has the First Amendment right to sell, or not sell, whatever it wants. (Spoiler: it does!)
As Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom summarizes concisely for the Times: “Amazon has a First Amendment right to pick and choose the materials they offer.”
So remember next time you are getting riled up about your right to free speech that we have also been quietly turning into a corporatocracy over the past 40 years. We can torture questions of who-has-the-freedom-of-speech-and-how-much-should-they-have-and-when-does-it-stop-or-start-or-who-is-a-Nazi-anyhow all day and night. The bottom line of who decides what gets said and when is that it is those who control the most wealth and industry—and the only solution is to decrease corporate power.
Onto less intense themes, in what is perhaps the only fun part of this article, apparently the way that Amazon erases book listings is by “dog-paging” them:
When Amazon drops a book from its store, it is as if it never existed. A recent Google search for David Duke’s “My Awakening: A Path to Racial Understanding” on Amazon yielded a link to a picture of an Amazon employee’s dog. Amazon sellers call these dead ends “dog pages.”
I am obligated to acknowledge that this is pretty cute.
But yes, power to the people, etc.
Athena Bryan is an editor at Melville House.