‘As Amazon thrives under Covid-19, critics say its founder’s wealth – he could buy the UK’s four big banks – is ‘obscene’…He was already by far the world’s richest person, but Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has set a fresh record increasing his fortune by an additional $13bn (£10bn) in a single day to take his personal wealth to an unprecedented $189bn.’
— The Guardian 21 July 2020
‘In some member states, Amazon’s market share is huge. According to an estimate in a 2014 report on the e-book market, Amazon has a 79 percent market share in the United Kingdom, with the largest local e-book seller, Waterstone’s, at 3.3 percent.’
—EU Observer June 2015
By IAN GARDNER.
IN JANUARY THIS year, The Fortnightly Review reported a short comment by Glenn Greenwald entitled, “Conformity, censorship and oppression“ in which he observed that over recent months, politicians and journalists have demanded that Silicon Valley censor the political right. If proof were needed of Greenwald’s assertion, his article was followed by reports in the Epoch Times, that Amazon has been quietly censoring its book listings and removing those that it believes to be “offensive”.
On 22 February 2021, the Times carried an article highlighting the removal of Ryan Anderson’s book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. Despite being sold by the retailer since 2018, in February this year, the book was deemed to have broken Amazon’s content guidelines and although Amazon was asked by Ryan Anderson to clarify which guidelines had been broken, the author did not receive a satisfactory explanation for the title being purged. The Epoch Times also attempted to get an explanation from Amazon in February, but without success. Although a generic statement was finally provided by the retailer, it failed to properly explain why Anderson’s book was deemed to be in breach of the content guidelines.
A recent response by Amazon to separate enquiries by Republican Senators in the US suggested that the retailer considered the book’s content to “frame LGBTQ+ identity issues as a mental illness” and denied that its decision was part of a wider project to censor conservative material on its platform. According to published reports, Dr Anderson strongly disagrees with Amazon’s characterisation of the content of his book.
Although the Senators asked for a step-by-step account of how the decision to censor Dr Anderson’s book was reached, Amazon failed to provide one, leaving the question of the intention, scope and practical effect of the new guidelines somewhat open to interpretation.
Research undertaken by Epoch Times contributor Petr Svab suggested that Amazon had quietly introduced its new policy sometime between 10 August 2020 and 21 February 2021, during which time Dr Anderson’s book was removed. However, it is likely that the new policy actually came into effect between August and December 2020 as other titles listed on Amazon’s UK website were also purged before the end of 2020. One such title was Tomorrow We Live by William Herber which was listed on Amazon.co.uk by West Coast Books, a small online bookstore which I own. Amazon is often used by independent booksellers wanting to reach the retailer’s large online audience of readers. Amazon receives a commission on books sold by such third parties. A recent survey showed 55 percent of Amazon’s sales were through this way.
On 29 December, Amazon UK e-mailed me to say,“this product was identified as one that violates our content guidelines for books. As a result, we have removed this book from our stores”. Perplexed at this assessment, I reviewed the title, quickly finding that it was about “the glories of the U. S. Marine Corps” and that the copy that was being offered for sale was also listed on Amazon under its US title, Tomorrow to Live. A small amount of further online digging revealed the possibility that Amazon had confused the UK / European edition title with Tomorrow We Live: British Union Policy, a 1938 book by Sir Oswald Mosley, the British Fascist.
Further research at TruthOut.org revealed that Amazon had been removing books from the “far right” since 2019, so I contacted Amazon on 30 December to query whether a mistake had been made in which Herber’s book had been confused with Mosley’s.
Amazon responded by acknowledging my query and confirming that the title had not been removed in error. Apparently Amazon had undertaken a “Restricted Products Review” and the title had been found to have violated Amazon’s Content Guidelines for Books, buried deep in their “customer service” directory.
Curious as to how a book on the US Marine Corps could violate Amazon’s Content Guidelines, I again wrote to Amazon asking for a specific explanation why this particular title was deemed to be in breach. After several generic and obviously cut-and-paste, standard replies pointing to the aforementioned Restricted Product Guidelines, a link to Amazon’s Content Guidelines for Books was eventually provided.
This is what is currently stated by Amazon:
As a bookseller, we believe that providing access to the written word is important, including content that may be considered objectionable. We carefully consider the types of content we make available in our stores and review our approach regularly, listening to feedback and investigating concerns from our customers. We reserve the right to remove content from sale if we determine it creates a poor customer experience.
Authors, publishers, and selling partners are responsible for adhering to our content guidelines. We invest significant time and resources to enforce these guidelines, using a combination of machine learning, automation, and dedicated teams of human reviewers. We’ll remove content that does not adhere to these guidelines and promptly investigate any book when notified of potential noncompliance. If we remove a title, we let the author, publisher, or selling partner know and they can appeal our decision.
We don’t sell certain content including content that we determine is hate speech, promotes the abuse or sexual exploitation of children, contains pornography, glorifies rape or pedophilia, advocates terrorism, or other material we deem inappropriate or offensive.
So, “machine learning” and “automation”— or “bots” to you and I — crawl over the content of book inventories looking for specific key words or titles. It all started to make sense.
It was obvious that Amazon’s bot had been programmed to look for Oswald Mosley’s book and had found William Herber’s title by mistake. It was equally obvious that the “dedicated team of human reviewers” had not been engaged and that Amazon’s Seller Support Team were simply sending out standard responses without taking the time to review what was evidently a mistake.
I then asked Amazon to escalate my query to a Manager or Supervisor who could take the time to review the matter further — with the benefit of the prior e-mail correspondence. Amazon had still not realised that the bot had wrongly identified the book by Herber and the Contact Centre Agents that were dealing with my query obviously did not have a script for a problem like this.
Finally, after a threat of contacting the Legal Department and Amazon’s UK Country Manager, the query was assigned to one of the retailer’s internal teams for review.
On 12 January 2021, some two weeks after purging the title from their website, Amazon reinstated Herber’s book and made it available for sale. No explanation, no apology — just a short email letting me know the book could now be sold.
On 13 January, I replied to Amazon and suggested that their response was not good enough. I asked why the book was suspended in the first place and why was it now reinstated? Was there an error on Amazon’s part and if so how could this be avoided in the future? I also asked whether there were other books that are deemed to be in violation of the Content Guidelines and if so whether a list could be provided?
On 24 January, Amazon provided another cut-and-paste reply restating paragraphs from the company’s Product Compliance Policy. There was no attempt at a proper explanation for the delisting nor any apology for the error. In fact, Amazon seemed to be loath to admit any mistake had taken place let alone the possible confusion of titles I had suggested.
Perhaps because of the additional free time that the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown has provided, I chose not to let the matter rest and asked for a fuller explanation. On 25 January after receiving yet another generic reply, I contacted Amazon’s UK Legal Department and Press Office.
No response after a couple of days, so on 28 January, I sent a further e-mail to the Press Office in the hope that someone would provide a full explanation for what had occurred and perhaps an apology for the way in which Amazon had dealt with my query.
Finally, on 2 February, Amazon admitted that Heber’s book had been automatically removed in error. A short message from Amazon’s Seller Support was followed by an e-mail from Dagmar Wickham, Amazon’s Media Relations Manager. Yes there had been an error and Dagmar apologised for this but could not provide any more information on what had happened.
So what does this all mean?
Well, firstly, it is clear that Amazon is using automation and machine-learning to actively look for content it subjectively deems to be “offensive”. Troublingly the process is opaque, with no-one obviously in charge, willing or able to fully answer queries. Front line staff replies use cut and paste responses which if not followed up, only re state policies that are couched in the vaguest of terms. Even when US Senators make enquiries, Amazon provides only the barest of explanations.
Secondly, the process is clearly not error free and when mistakes are made, Amazon seems to be reluctant to admit that this is the case. It certainly does not offer full and transparent explanations. While there is an appeals process and errors can be corrected there is no formal procedure to complain about what Amazon is doing – or how badly it is doing it.
Perhaps the most troubling thing is the opacity. Amazon’s banning of books is not something it has publicised and there does not appear to be any independent scrutiny of what it considers to be offensive. It is very easy for Amazon to use its market strength to quietly censor books from one or more political perspectives — even if they are legally available elsewhere and do not constitute obscene, indecent, racially or religiously offensive material.
In a democratic society, laws determine how freedom of speech and expression are to be exercised, not the private whims of powerful businesses. Amazon has quickly grown to be an important retailer relied on by hundreds of thousands of customers and the decision to censor books is both a huge disappointment and a real concern.
On 13 January, I asked Amazon if there is a list of books that have been banned. It is now the end of March and I am still waiting for that reply. I am not holding my breath.
Dr Ian Gardner is a consultant and independent academic researcher based in the UK. He also sells books and can be contacted on email@example.com.
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