Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Amazon.com, pedophiles, and free speech

It happened earlier today. A few messages went out over the Twit-o-sphere proclaiming that Amazon.com "published" a "how-to guide" for pedophiles.

It spread like wildfire, with re-tweets and blog posts lighting up the web. The Twitter hash tags #amazonfail and #boycottamazon are on the verge of trending.

In typical Internet community fashion, this whole thing is being blown way out of proportion.

This is, on the whole, a family-oriented site, so I am not going to name the offending book, link to it, or give specific quotes or details. But here are the facts: there is currently (as of my writing this) a Kindle e-book for sale on Amazon that specifically mentions pedophilia and, according to the description, offers advice to pedophiles on how to avoid prosecution if caught.

Now, I'm not one to judge a book by its cover, but this is a terrible idea for a book. It goes way beyond the realm of "free speech" when you start actively promoting ideas on how to escape punishment for committing a crime, and a particularly heinous one at that.

Let's be abundantly clear: I am of the opinion that this book should--and hopefully will--be pulled from Amazon's online storefront. And while I am not an attorney, I would even go so far as to say the author should be investigated by authorities.

In the interest of full disclosure, I've been an Amazon customer for over a decade, and they've always treated me right. A week doesn't go by when a package doesn't arrive at my doorstep from them. Our household relies on Amazon for coffee, cereal, snacks, books, video games, movies--lots of stuff!

However, I've also seen products pulled from their site before, for far more innocent offenses. They can, and do, respond to their customers.

The issue for me here is that most of the people I've seen tweeting and blogging about the e-book in question are not giving Amazon time to respond. The calls to boycott Amazon or bring them up on criminal charges are just knee-jerk, premature reactions that smack of idiocy and ignorance. The offending book may have gone up for sale on October 28th, but the buzz about its controversy appears to be less than 12 hours old in "Internet time."

Here's why I'm not writing off Amazon just yet.

First, from what I've read, the process for independent authors to submit their own Kindle e-book for sale on Amazon is still relatively new. It is by no means "commodity" and is very much still "novelty."

While Amazon claims they review all products submitted, it should be noted that Apple says the same thing about their App Store, but that hasn't stopped malicious or inappropriate content sneaking through. It's a law of numbers--there's just no way they can personally review everything in detail. And being that the system is new, it takes feedback (like they are undoubtedly receiving right now en masse) to properly refine the submission/approval system.

Naturally I agree that a book with the word "pedophile" in the title should have been flagged for further scrutiny, but it wasn't. Instead of whining about what wasn't done, let's focus on what can be done--that is, asking Amazon to improve their system. People need to understand this is a huge, international company; it isn't one guy sitting in an office rubber-stamping stuff.

The Catcher in the Rye
If this book had been
published today, would 
Amazon not sell it?
Secondly, there's the matter of legality. Again, I'm not an attorney, but I would bet dimes to donuts that when an "author" presents an independent book to Amazon for selling on their Kindle store that some type of official Terms & Conditions contract is entered into by both parties.

This contract would undoubtedly grant both sides various rights and obligations. It likely entails that Amazon will not just arbitrarily remove the author's work without justifiable explanation--and by that I mean something Amazon's lawyers have reviewed and can substantiate. Otherwise, a malicious person could send off emails to Amazon all day declaring that the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid is offensive and demand it be pulled from the store, "just because." Or, conversely, an author could take legal action against Amazon claiming their First Amendment rights were violated if their book was removed. This sort of thing can be a slippery slope, and every responsible company is going to cover themselves from a liability standpoint.

Imagine for a moment if you were an author who put up a "controversial" book for sale on Amazon, and had it removed pell mell just because of public outcry, with no opportunity to defend yourself or your work. I'd imagine you'd feel a bit like JK Rowling when a Georgia, USA mother demanded Harry Potter be pulled from schools. The proverbial knife cuts both ways.

Third, I haven't heard or read of anyone who has actually purchased or reviewed this book. If they did, I somehow doubt that person would actually admit it. As such, and given the appearance of this book shortly after Banned Books Week, it is possible, however unlikely, that the contents of the book are benign, open impudence, or just controversial for controversy's sake.

To be clear, I don't think this is necessarily the case. But this is the Internet. Stranger things have happened in a place where anyone can do just about anything they want.

Last but not least, many people are emailing Amazon customer service and getting replies back stating Amazon does not censor its product offerings. They immediately point to this as "evidence" that Amazon approves of the controversial book, without for a moment considering that Amazon, like many large companies, has thousands upon thousands of pre-written email replies for a wide range of regular customer inquiries.

One ABC News article (which I will not link to because it specifically names the book) goes so far as to equate Amazon's canned email reply with an officially issued statement.

Seriously?

As I mentioned before, in all likelihood Amazon's corporate office is aware of what's going on. They are likely consulting their legal team and their own policies in order to make a reasonable, responsible reply. The offensive book is probably being read and evaluated. And I have every confidence that Amazon will make a statement to the media and take proper action--they're a publicly traded company and have a reputation to uphold. But these things take time.

If they do remove the book, great! They listened to their customers and stood up for what's right, even if some minority may say it "tramples free speech." That book doesn't belong on a site like Amazon, in my opinion.

If they don't remove the book, then we should all take a long, hard look at who might be a better source for our e-commerce needs.

Until Amazon makes a formal decision either way, I will continue to buy from them. Unlike some who take a hard line, I will not let unreasonable fear-mongering and ignorance dictate my consumer habits. If we all endorsed this idea that a company should be vilified for carrying products we have ethical and moral qualms about--however justified we may be--then no one would shop anywhere.

7 comments:

  1. I'm not defending this book or anything, but wanted to point something out. No where in the description does it say the book is about how pedophiles can avoid being caught. It says it is about how pedophiles should approach their relationships to avoid harm to the child and to get lighter sentences should they get caught.

    I think that twisting and/ or misrepresenting the facts only adds to the sensationalism of this.

    ReplyDelete
  2. @Quinn - Thanks for the comment. It was a misqueue on my part, and I apologize. I wasn't attempting to twist anything. As such, I've adjusted the line from "avoid getting caught" to "avoid prosecution if caught." The actual author's words, as you mentioned, infer that the book will help pedophiles get a lighter sentence if caught. Either way, I interpret his statement as offering advice on how to dodge the law for committing criminal acts, whether this be prior or post arrest.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Also adjusted "escape capture" to "escape punishment."

    ReplyDelete
  4. I just read the article and saw your posting. You've beat me to it. You've done a wonderful job spreading the message.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks, LH! :) I'm happy to see Amazon removed the book for sale.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Very balanced. People are so quick to jump on a bandwagon these days without thinking for themselves. It's dangerous.

    ReplyDelete
  7. @Carolyn - Thanks, and you're right. It is dangerous. As Jon Stewart said recently, "If we amplify everything, we hear nothing."

    ReplyDelete