Unethical Quote of the Week: Amazon

“…Amazon.com does not support or promote hatred or criminal acts; we do support the right of every individual to make their own purchasing decisions. Amazon.com believes it is censorship not to sell certain titles because we believe their message is objectionable.”

Amazon.com to the technology blog TechCrunch, in response to the bookseller’s offering the e-book, The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child-lover’s Code of Conduct by Philip R. Greaves II.

It isn’t censorship to refuse to sell a book that actively promotes criminal treatment of children, any more than it is censorship to refuse to publish it….as any responsible publisher would have done in this case. Books giving advice about how to assassinate the President, how to poison the water supply, and how to make your daughter your lover would also apparently fit Amazon’s irresponsible and dishonest definition of books that it has an obligation to sell.

Yes, it’s a slippery slope, but this isn’t even a close call.

Amazon, beset with protests and a P.R. disaster, changed its mind and pulled the book. Unfortunately, we now know more about what Amazon considers ethical business practices, and it is not encouraging.

9 thoughts on “Unethical Quote of the Week: Amazon

  1. You just ran me round the flagpole — I never thought I’d see openmindedness in a corporation again. And there it was, for a moment. Then, flippety-flop: close it up again. Don’t know why I would have expected it to last, though.

    The same thing began with eBay just a few years after it freshened the economy with new interest as well as cash flow — an enjoyable bargain/bonanza for everyone involved –, by shutting down its open-market feeling in a series of ever-narrowing steps. At first, you could bid and sell pretty much whatever the bidder and seller (adults all, that was never argued) agreed upon. First came so called “international restrictions” resulting from the most restrictive country’s postal or customs regulations being applied to all, leading to a complete shutdown of international offers on certain items. Then came more and more separation between the “clean” and “dirty” sides of eBay that, for example, arbitrarily left the feelthy pictures on one side if they could be deemed art, folk craft or of daguerrotype age, and the same images labeled (not directly, but by obvious exclusion) relegated to the other, dark, side. Then you couldn’t illustrate material if it showed certain body parts (ALWAYS vague, unspecified; always threatening the perpetrator with expulsion). Making it more difficult to post material that crossed The Line, eBay instituted on one side, a comparatively simple and direct method of composing and inserting an auction, and on the other, verboten words, pictures and shipping strictures that referred you back to small-print rules at every blank space, and changed with the wind. Just going over to the dark side was time-consuming and, well, flashing red lights that seemed to be (and I’m sure, were) meant to discourage the part of their business they had themselves placed beyond the pale and which was now causing more trouble than it was worth.

    My experience with this was that in trying to auction a book authored by a good friend (not my inscribed copy!), instead of using eBay’s own boring and uninformative description (which obviously wasn’t selling the 15 or so copies already up) , I simply reproduced word-for-word the review — already reprinted in a respected national publication — that appeared on the back cover. No nasty words or explicit sexuality … just the quote. Four hours later, I had five bids building and was delighted. When I went back the next day to see how the auction looked, it had been pulled and the bidders informed the auction was cancelled; on querying eBay, no direct explanation was offered, and I was warned severely not to try to replace it or slap-my-hands ever to do “it” again. The book was listed as one of Playboy’s 25 Most Erotic Novels of All Time — the selling equivalent of an Oscar in its genre. It was that line copied from the back cover … the line that did not appear, you see, in eBay’s own, acceptable, boring, utterly uninformative copy. The contents of the book was immaterial; according to eBay you could tell it by it’s (back) cover alone. I was of course, perfectly welcome to place it on the porno-eBay — where, as a novel, it would naturally languish among the more graphic entries, no matter what its description.

    I just dropped it — there seemed to be more important fish to bring to a boil … but Amazon’s about-face in today’s mondo-corporate world seems perched on a slippery slope of, say, selling sex toys yesterday, some things that can be used as sex toys tomorrow, and nothing that anyone can perceive as a sex toy the day after.

    These self-effacing, pseudocapitulations by large corporations — including oil companies promising to make the world safe for humans, supermarket and drugstore monopolies simplifying the customer’s choices by marketing their own brands in place of a wide selection, and, yes, tomorrow’s fast food restaurants lowering the sodium, fat and caloric content of their kid-food and raising the quality of their toys — appear to be the ethics of the day.
    If ethics are based on learned behaviors, norms, standards of right and wrong (and a whole lot of other stuff: I know), and if as we live into eighth, ninth, tenth (?) decades those behaviors, norms and standards change — which they do –, then how can ethics remain the same? By current standards, it seems that eBay is doing the Right Thing, and that Amazon IS behaving ethically. When there is nothing else to choose from, the corporate ethic becomes the personal ethic.

    • I would not blanch if Amazon sold pornography—actually, I assumed it did. Books advocating and instructing on criminal activity have no legitimate purpose, and don’t meet First Amendment standards—they are printed “Fire!” in a crowded theater. This is such as easy call that I don’t believe it even raises slippery slope concerns. I agree with your objections in the E-Bay scenario. I think the criminal activity threatening harm to children is a pretty secure firewall….it doesn’t worry me.

  2. This is just a boneheaded move by Amazon. Not really much to say about it other than point out the stupidity.

    Of course, the failure to learn the correct lesson from this “teachable moment” is rather more disturbing. In general, I like Amazon and hope they succeed. In the instant case, though, they should “man up” and take responsibility for their failure instead of offering this logic-free gobbledegoop.

    It’s also legal to sell pornography on Amazon, for the most part. Why don’t they do that? Could it be because it is bad for their business? They don’t consider that censorship?

    Whenever somebody in business or politics uses the word “censorship,” we should look askance at it.

  3. Jack,
    You’re right. It *IS* a slippery slope, so let’s just stay off of it altogether. If there was a market for the book, people should be allowed to buy it and others should be allowed to sell it. If no such market doesn’t exist (as I imagine it doesn’t), it will quickly go out of print and soon become one of the many books which are eventually lost to history. Every few years some new gadfly writes another yet another book sure to disgust and offend, and every few years the debate starts over again. Calls to ban the book and the ensuing media attention only makes this kind of garbage more popular.

    Also, no one has any right to determine that which has merit and that which doesn’t; it’s up the responsibility of individuals to decide for themselves. This particular book is almost certainly trash and, it is not my intent to defend its message; however, its irresponsible to say that a book is unethical because it encourages criminal behavior. While you may have a point in this case, similar arguments could be made for almost all literature seen as taboo or promoting illegal activity? Should Amazon stop selling “Mein Kampf” too (it openly encouraged hate and genocide .. where’s the merit there?)? Despicable ideas are not driven out by refusing to acknowledge them, any more than prohibiting the publication or selling of this particular tome will result in pedophiles suddenly changing their minds.

    Moreover, it wasn’t the fear of a public relations mess that scared Amazon into pulling the title, rather it was the concern over any resulting damage to their profit margin that made all the difference. People complained, Amazon responded and the market censored itself. So, capitalism won.


  4. Neil, I am THIS close to being a free speech absolutist, so I have great respect and near agreement with your position. But a book that tells how to entice and molest children is far, far beyond Mein Kampf—which may advocate hate, but hate isn’t illegal, and may justify genocide, but has a lot more in it than that, and doesn’t describe how to commit genocide. Refusing to sell how-to crime books isn’t censorship—he can put the book on the internet, he can publish and advertise it himself, and I’ll defend to the death his right to do it. But a responsible bookseller should draw some lines, though few, and this seems to me to be an easy one.

  5. FYI and thank you. There is a new Christian guide out on the rearing of children which Amazon is planing to replace the Pedophiles Guide with now that it can be purchased as an ebook. The new paper back guide is tentatively called. ¨A Holy Whipping is NOT a Pedophiles Licking¨. And there are all sorts of appropriate punishments in it that can be used by the Christian family for everything from making the child eat hot jalapeño peppers for using the wrong words…to other more sever but not as ¨scaring¨ punishments.

    And there is an entire chapter devoted to telling in such beauty that we are not animals like K9s or bears who lick and preen their young to bond with them. And that for the sake of the child´s sexual maturity affection should be held to a minimum and only used sparingly as a reward for positive behavior. B.F. Skinner is mentioned in the preface as being among those the author strongly admires.

    Thank you once again for pointing this out. You should feel very proud.

    Dr LaBra

  6. My painful experience is that Amazon.com operates only from its corporate interest.
    My story:
    Amazon.com Swindles Disabled Veteran-Author Out of Book Sales Profits.

    Let this be a warning to all who would do business with the corporate giant, Amazon.com.
    I don’t want to have to fight this battle. God knows, I’ve had enough of them – serving as a helicopter ambulance pilot in Vietnam; playing a part in exposing a corrupt state prison system as a young counselor, and more minor battles against injustice than I can remember. I’m tired, and have not been well. But this is plain, damn wrong, what Amazon.com did to me – and apparently as well to other vendors on their site. They will not get away with my deserved profit.

    Since 2002, under the Amazon Advantage program on their site, I have been selling a book I wrote and published. Because I had no money to promote the book, I settled for the less-than-customary percentage in exchange for a chance to get it out there on Amazon.com.

    Nine years later, in the process of requesting profits from my account that I have never requested over the years, I had a shocking discovery. Instead of a balance of over a couple hundred dollars, that I expected, I was informed that I have a negative account balance of $151.19!

    How could this be? Without funds to promote it, the book was always a slow seller, but I had lost track of the times I had received orders from Amazon.com, always for only one or two books at a time, but the modest sales had built up over the years.

    I shall not go into detail about the hellish exchange of messages I endured with this company, trying to get the information about my account. Beyond farming out support to other countries, they apparently train their representatives to a high degree in the skills of deflection and obfuscation, I think designed to wear a person out and make him or her give up their pursuit of answers – or, for that matter, collecting a profit. After three days of exchanges, I finally had my answers.

    The money in my account – my profits for sales on the Amazon.com site – was gone . . . more than gone. I was informed in the email (they refused to communicate by phone) that the negative balance would have to be resolved by enough sales to result in a positive balance before I could expect to receive any payments. (Duh!) A casual ledger provided a breakdown of “fees” charged yearly for “membership” – deducted from my account. Their “fees” had outpaced my profits.

    Shocked, I wracked my brain for recollection of previous communications with the Amazon.com Advantage Program. I remembered no membership fees when I first signed up in 2002. I remembered problems trying to receive payment early on, because Amazon wanted a significant minimum balance to build up before they would disburse payments – seems they didn’t want the overhead of processing frequent checks. Also, there would be a $35 processing fee, per payment check, unless I gave my bank information for direct transfer.

    Somewhere along the line, over the years, I remember getting something in an email about a membership fee. I take full responsibility for my part in any miscommunication – but Amazon’s designs and strategies of non-communication and obfuscation lie at the heart of how they wound up with all of the profits for the sale of my book – theirs and mine.

    I expected to be billed for their “membership fee”. I didn’t expect it to be a yearly fee; the site was already set up, so lack of contact about billing was of no concern. At least, in a business relationship, I expected regular communication and a yearly statement on my account. Amazon Advantage does none of this.

    They do communicate with an urgent email when ordering a book. That’s the only predictable communication. I lost track of the times I rearranged my schedule to invoice, process, pack and deliver to the post office the one or two books ordered to meet Amazon’s deadline. Over the course of nine years.
    How could it be that Amazon.com set it up to take all the profits?

    Days earlier, that thought was furthest from my mind when I tried to contact Amazon through my Amazon Advantage account. I thought the money was there. I thought I would arrange to have my book published in a Kindle version to promote sales.

    My primary income is now my VA disability check and Social Security. Facing financial hardship in the family, in these times, I thought a Kindle version of my book would provide additional income to tie us over – partly because it would stimulate sales of hard copies.

    So, I intended to try to purchase a Kindle with funds from my Advantage account, learn the device, and arrange for a Kindle version of my book. Nowhere on Amazon.com – not even with a search – could I find a link to the Amazon Advantage program. After a general email inquiry, during which I had to reset my password, I was able to access my empty account. I believe Amazon.com used its sophisticated technological and communication skills to essentially embezzle the money in my account. I admit, I could have been more aggressive about following up on my account. I was too trusting. Like many others in the Amazon Advantage program, I am not a businessman first – but rather a writer and retired counselor, and Amazon took advantage of that.
    I trusted Amazon.com to be ethical and fair.

    Back when I was unable to secure payment for my initial profits from Amazon.com, I had turned my attention to other things. It was like having money in the bank, having a small account, where profits were slowly growing with each occasional order. Over those years, I sought what looked like more lucrative financial pursuits. Illnesses came with my disability, and a bad car accident. But there was always the book.
    Earlier this week, I had a plan to promote that book. I would use the funds in my account to pursue the Kindle route, but they weren’t there. Amazon.com, in a master-stroke of corporate greed, had acquired all the profits from my book – a book for which we second-mortgaged the house to publish.

    Granville Angell

    Further Clarification in Response to Amazon.com (which has been ignored)

    Mr. Aly, I have no idea whether or not you are even receiving my reply. Once again, Amazon restricts dialogue. You don’t seem to have any idea that the way your company went about depleting my account is my major issue. Therefore, let me try to clarify my perceptions here.

    I am wondering if my narrative had the clarity I was attempting to develop. The pivotal point here is that Amazon.com did not communicate with me, except to order books: no yearly statement, indicating balance, a fee deducted yearly, nothing like that. Further, neither is there a link to get into the Amazon Advantage program on your site, and a search for the program does not yield the Amazon Advantage sub site. So I had to send email to discover the links in order to access my account.

    I believe Amazon structured it this way to discourage routine account checks by Advantage vendors. Yes, I could have retained link information on my computer (I did), but I changed computers and had a drive crash. And, when one is not getting much activity in a business venture, one is inclined to direct attention to more promising pursuits. This should not be a signal for Amazon to change their contract, add a yearly fee regarding membership and start deducting from vendors’ accounts!

    I do remember an email from Amazon, well AFTER I signed up, indicating an intent to charge the membership fee. At the time I was expecting enough book sales to offset additional overhead partnering with Amazon. But, out of sight, out of mind – especially since I was expecting billing. Had Amazon sent me a statement, indicating deduction from my account, I would have been able to make a determination of whether it was worth it to continue with them or cut my losses. Rather, your company continued to deplete my account to a significant negative balance, without even notifying me!

    People like me, who are not savvy businesspeople, and who usually have other pursuits in the fire are especially vulnerable to stealth strategies like Amazon’s. It may not be illegal, but it sure as hell is unethical! How can Amazon justify taking all of the profits from the sale of my book, under any circumstances?

    Under the present arrangement dictated by YOUR post-contract terms, I have to sell many more books through Amazon before even breaking even. And, if I cannot increase book sales because I cannot cycle profits back into financing further promotion, I have essentially become a slave to this Amazon rat race. At Amazon’s beck and call, one one-book order at a time, I have to drop what I’m doing and deliver the goods at considerable cost to me! I call this corporate feudalism – and I’m the serf here.

    BTW, I did file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, as well as begin circulating accounts of my experience on the Net. Another thing, I did not mean to imply that Amazon is out to swindle disabled vets. I think your Amazon Advantage program (an ironic play on words) is designed to swindle anybody who vends their books with them. That I happen to be a disabled vet, with limited resources, is a more salient point to the kind of collateral damage your policies inflict on people.

    So, this all started because I wanted to purchase a Kindle out of my account, learn the ropes and further promote my book through publishing for Kindle. Amazon’s actions have crippled all of that!
    Tell Jeff Bezos that he has ruined the plans of this old vet through the greed of his company, though I bet he is nowhere to be found, celebrating a holiday of which he probably has no clue of its meaning.
    I have been a faithful Amazon customer from the beginning, but not anymore.

    Granville Angell

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