Tales Of The Slippery Slope: Amazon And Censorship

From the New York Times:

Amazon has removed the online listings for two books that claim to contain cures for autism, a move that follows recent efforts by several social media sites to limit the availability of anti-vaccination and other pseudoscientific material. The books, “Healing the Symptoms Known as Autism” and “Fight Autism and Win,” which had previously been listed for sale in Amazon’s marketplace, were not available on Wednesday. The company confirmed that the listings had been removed, but declined to discuss why or whether similar books would be taken down in the future.

And what does “similar books” mean?

Based on what I’ve seen from our tech giants, “similar books” could soon include a scientist’s arguments against climate change, a hagiography of President Trump, or an expose of the  misconduct of the Obama Administration. Amazon has decided that anti-vax arguments are dangerous and wrong, and though I happen to agree with them, it is not Amazon’s job to decide what ideas, positions, opinions and theories are worthy of public consumption. Amazon dominated the book retail business (and many other businesses as well). Its censorship policies constrain debate, the free expression of ideas, and the expression of dissent from the majority.

Defenders of civil liberties and freedom of speech must express their disapproval of Amazon’s Big Brother act, even if it has the “right” to abuse its power, and even if it isn’t the government choosing which citizens to muzzle. Conduct like this places me squarely on the side of Elizabeth Warren, who is advocating breaking up companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook. When we start allowing speech labeled “dangerous” or “untrue” to be blocked, no matter who is doing the blocking, then we are damaging our democracy and the free circulation of ideas, as well as abetting elite attempts at thought control.


25 thoughts on “Tales Of The Slippery Slope: Amazon And Censorship

  1. Rather than pursuing a purely market oriented solution like a government regulated monopoly or a nationalized publicly owned utility model, why not treat the Amazon, Google and Facebook types of the world to trust busting a la ATT in the 1980s. Let the pieces compete against each other, develop distinct cultures, customer bases and temporarily protect them against foreign competitors like Alibaba, Baidu and WeChat.

    • You have a problem of scale and infrastructure. With the phone companies, the infrastructure was there and could be broken up into regional services. That could not be done with Amazon because buyers and sellers could be all over the place. So, regional customer bases is not compatible with the model.

      The other issue is scale. Amazon is probably very effective because it can manage several large distribution centers. Breaking that up, you would have 6 mini-Amazons competing for customers while scaling down a nationwide distribution network.

      Just because it worked with the phone company does not mean it will work with Amazon.

      However, it may work with Wells Fargo. But, if you break up Wells Fargo, but leave USBank and several other big banks alone, just watch them absorb the mini-Fargos


      • I disagree.

        Breaking up singular or monopolisitc corporate control of centralized algorithmic driven communications platforms and conduits is the issue, not infrastructure. Physical distribution issues can be addressed by divided or shares of sold capital. When one source controls what you see are allowed to consider buying, or even thinking or speaking about this is a genuine monopoly of information.

        99.7% of all US searches are Google (and a bit of Google owned Bing). They too have monopoly of information flow. Facebook is close to the same with roughly 87% of the social media account market between Instagram and Facebook. (Google’s YouTube is another issue.)

        • Actually, what I meant about infrastructure was that it could make things easier to divide up regionally. Banks and phone lines can be divided regionally because phone lines and local branches stay put.

          Thinking about Facebook. Can you break that up into 6 social media groups? Sure. But how can you prevent them from collapsing back together. I sure as hell am not going to maintain 6 profiles, and I will gravitate toward where my connections are. And there is no way to prevent me from using a given social platform.

          Phones and banks are a little different, though cell phone providers maintain nationwide networks


        • The problem is, most of the companies aren’t monopolies by traditional definition. They may have a kind of monopolistic market power, but it’s not as cut and dried as in the old days.

          I hate to suggest this, but perhaps companies engaging in efforts to control speech should get different tax treatment, or face other regulatory hurdles that will make them either reconsider that position or help pay for those who do not restrict speech? I don’t know, I’m just tossing junk out there, it’s such a thorny problem.

          I’m all about the freedom of companies to say what they want, and sell what they want, but I hate censorship by companies who have a powerful market position, especially for ideological reasons. The government has some power to control monopolies or companies able to exercise that kind of power.

          It’s going to take a creative solution to avoid constitutional issues, if that’s even possible. What if Amazon decides to carry only books from liberal politicians, or promote them to the point you can’t locate others?

          It’s just wrong, man.

      • Yes, I am.

        Maybe I am not being clear.

        Just because breaking up MaBell WORKED does not mean that will work on every big company. They are NOT all MaBell


  2. Amazon also recently banned Tommy Robinson’s Book, ‘Mohammed’s Koran’ which is critical of Islam. I know this is maybe bad timing based on current events but the subject and title are not my point – the point is that Amazon was already on the slippery slope.

  3. Defenders of civil liberties and freedom of speech must express their disapproval of Amazon’s Big Brother act, even if it has the “right” to abuse its power, and even if it isn’t the government choosing which citizens to muzzle.

    Hear, hear!

    But all I hear is crickets, mostly. But then, from Newsweek of all places, we have a semi-balanced look at the issue. I like what Professor Joseph Uscinski of the University of Miami said about it:

    Uscinski questioned how Amazon would define conspiracy and whether the company would have to regulate all forms of medical self-treatment that aren’t widely agreed upon. He also asked whether Amazon would have to ban books on vitamins and supplements if it began restricting content.

    “Once you open this can of worms, you realize there’s a lot of worms,” he said.

    A lot of worms indeed. Congress, over to you…

    • Not a response, not a rebuttal, just a lazy punt. We know that, I know that. The fact that a private company can abuse its power doesn’t mean that it should, or that the public is bound to tolerate it. Facebook has the right to a harvest information about its users and sell it. Google can manipulate its search algorithm. And Amazon can make it difficult for an author to sell books to people who want to buy it in order to push its political agenda.

      Your argument was used before the civil right acts to excuse businesses refusing to serve minorities. It’s a lazy, thought-free argument, especially when the company in question has as much power as Amazon. At least the restaurant that wouldn’t serve blacks could sometimes claim that it didn’t matter, because another equal eatery was next door, or close. The reason the law was necessary became vivid when there was no good alternative, and there are no good alternatives to Amazon if you want to sell your book.

      Do better next time.

      • I would also point out that since it is NOT protected by the 1st Amendment, it can also be regulated and, if necessary, taxed into oblivion. Congress has a LOT of freedom to act on this. They won’t of course, but that avenue is available to them.

    • The “private company” argument gets less and less convincing every time Congress hauls one of the CEOs of these private companies before a committee to express their concern at their lack of censorship.

  4. Years ago I worked at a book store that had a Holocaust Revisionism section. Many customers didn’t like it, so the company stated something like “While the views expressed we don’t condone, we believe in the 1st amendment…”

    Though the store today actually censors in a underground sort of way, I always appreciated it’s commitment not to censor (back then).

    My stance is how can you possibly know if the ideas in a book are terrible unless you have a chance to read it.

  5. Okay. I’m actually quite familiar with one of the books in question — I even spent about five years dealing (over and over and over again) with its author and her brand of bullshit (yes, that’s actually the technical term)… and I have to say that your analysis is flat-out wrong on one major point and significantly off in another respect.

    Of course, whether that impacts the rest of the analysis is another matter.

    The major problem with your analysis is that what sets those books apart is not that they’re anti-vaccine… but don’t take my word for it. As I write this, I’m paging through my first-edition copy of Rivera’s Healing the Symptoms Known as Autism (my second-edition copy is somewhere), so I’ll use it to illustrate. Let me give you just a small sample of what the book actually contains.

    The thing is essentially a protocol book, dedicated to “teaching” parents a complicated pseudoscientific and ritualistic protocol centered around having the parents feed industrial bleach (chlorine dioxide) to their children, bathe their children in a solution of industrial bleach, and give their children bleach enemas.

    It doesn’t contain substantial discussion of what autism is, instead focusing on what to do about it. There’s a six-page introduction, a seventeen-page autobiographical sketch which also serves as a truly horrifying tale of child abuse (e.g. “He told me that the more doses [of industrial bleach] we can get [read: make her child drink] in one day the better, 8 doses is the minimum…. That first week Patrick [her child] vomited (classic Herxheimer reaction), because I went too fast with the dosing.”, bracketed comments added for clarification), and a sixteen-page collection of 35 testimonials to the benefits of making your disabled child drink industrial bleach. It then spends 34 pages on making your child follow a complicated and nonsensical diet (Chapter 3, “Step 1 — The Diet”), four pages on why drinking bleach allegedly won’t harm your kid with testimonials and promotionals mixed in (Chapter 4, “A Note from Jim Humble”), and… well, it gets worse from there.

    Chapter 5 (“Step 2 — Chlorine Dioxide (CD)”) is 49 pages of detailed instructions on how to make your child drink bleach, bathe in bleach, and take bleach enemas, starting with general promotional material and yet more pseudoscientific discussion of why it allegedly won’t hurt your kid… before it moves onto the nitty-gritty. It discusses the “baby bottle method” for making bleach for your kid to drink, methods to prepare an enema (fleet bottles vs. a homemade contraption based on syringes and catheters vs. a gravity or enema/douche bag), homemade bath devices… and a lot of generally horrifying miscellaneous advice (spraying industrial bleach on snake bites rather than seeking hospital treatment, or this glorious bit: “Dose frequently throughout the day…. Do a minimum of eight doses a day, but try to get in more doses if possible. Go for 16 in cases of PANS/PANDAS and acute situations like colds and flus.”)

    Chapter 6 (“CDS, A New Way to Deliver Chlorine Dioxide”) is eight pages on an alternate way to prepare bleach to shove up your kid’s ass (and make him drink; can’t forget that).

    Chapter 7 is the last one I will review, and arguably the most blatantly criminal one in the book. It is subtitled “Step 3 – The Kalcker Parasite Protocol” and is dedicated to teaching parents to remove sections of their kids’ intestinal linings and label them as “parasites”.

    It doesn’t just include a bunch of advice on how to remove larger sections of intestinal lining via bleach enema and collect samples to share on the Internet — it also includes photographic evidence of this in practice via many, many photographs of sections of kids’ intestinal lining and what types of “worms” these sections allegedly are. This is not a new thing in the alt-med world (Google “rope worms” sometime if you want more evidence than you could ever want), but it remains blatantly abusive.

    There are more chapters. Frankly, though, I think I’ve made my point. Still, for the sake of completeness, there’s a chapter on “other supplements” (which vary in danger), one on hyperbarics, one on chelation (which is extremely dangerous), some closing thoughts (ranging from how everything under the sun wrong with your kid is really a condition that can be treated with bleach to how much more cost-effective bleaching your kid is than other forms of pseudoscientific “treatment” and how to find people who will support you in your decision to abuse your child), and appendixes including still more testimonials, further reading, “protocol” summaries, a guest-written section on pseudoscientific ways to “avoid” autism in future kids, and the like.

    The point of this overview — which I freely admit went into far more detail than it strictly should have, but it’d take more effort to edit it down than it’s worth — was to establish that the book is not fairly characterized as simply espousing an antivaccine viewpoint. Vaccination is, in fact, barely even mentioned.

    What the book is is a how-to manual for criminal activity (child abuse) with a good bit of testimonial and photographic evidence of said child abuse. And while I have a letter from Michigan’s government saying, in essence, that it’s perfectly legal in that state to give your kids bleach enemas in the name of “autism treatment”, both my own reading of the statute and several other states’ governments disagree.

    The book isn’t dangerous because it encourages an antivaccine viewpoint. The book’s dangerous because it encourages vulnerable parents to make their kids drink bleach.

    I’ve never personally read “Fight Autism and Win,” but my understanding is that it’s a similar book — albeit one that promotes a different, but no less dangerous, pseudoscientific “autism treatment.” Again, the danger has very little to do with the antivaccine viewpoint that its methodology presupposes, and does have to do with the criminal behavior it encourages.

    That’s where your analysis is simply wrong — even if understandably so given the coverage. The better parallels are things like the Anarchist’s Cookbook (available on Amazon), a “how-to” guide for carjacking (I didn’t look), or a book on defrauding the IRS (I’m not that familiar with pseudolaw, but I searched for Winston Shrout’s publications on the subject; Amazon doesn’t sell them).

    Now, I’m not saying that free speech concerns aren’t relevant. They’re actually very much so… but without comment from Amazon, we can’t really say what their reasoning was. As noted, this can’t be fairly considered an “antivaccine crackdown” per se, or even viewpoint-specific censorship… which leads into the other issue I mentioned.

    And, bluntly, that issue is the overall context of this move. Amazon (along with Google and Facebook) has been facing a great deal of criticism for the way that their review and search systems are game-able by pseudoscientists and frauds — and the antivaxxers in particular. This has resulted in some substantial negative press coverage for them… and, as a company, they can’t afford people losing confidence in their recommendations and salesmanship.

    And, make no doubt, the issue was very much at risk of causing damage to that confidence. Several of the press pieces emphasized how someone naively searching for vaccine information could instead find antivax propaganda, for instance, and several notable pseudo-documentaries were available — or even top recommendations — on their video streaming service.

    As such, they’ve been making a show of “doing something” about the (rather extensive) mess and hamfistedly removing some of the more blatant offenders. This is just one example — they also removed the fraudulent, pseudoscientific documentary Vaxxed from Prime Video service, as another. It does nothing to actually fix the systemic problems with their service — but does provide press coverage to address and mitigate the PR issue.

    And that, more than actually fixing anything, is what I think they want.

    Now if only we had responsible, informed journalists giving this the sort of (extensive) coverage it deserves…

    • I was hoping you would comment, AC, since I know you have special expertise. I’ll post this as a COTD, and I don’t feel it’s too detailed at all.

      As I think you know, my position is that it doesn’t matter what’s wrong with the book, and I assume my post was clear on that. Short of publishing classified national secrets, a book advocating or facilitating criminal activities is as important to guard from censorship as “The Mill on the Floss.” This sounds like a really, really bad book (or books), but in effect banning it is certainly banning it based on content.

      • They should not ban books (or CDs or DVDs or some really dinky so-called “medical” supplies) but they could attach warnings to them in the form of highlighting say, opposing reviews (not hidden in the Reviews section; those are restricted to customers anyway but as part of the “front page”), one of which would contain the kind of information Mr. Cheezem reports? Or a single review that opposes the book jacked blurb?

        Or the FDA, AMA might step up and, much as I hate the phrase, Do Something, like start a list of things/advice currently on the market that is not medically approved by 99.9% of doct…. oh, never mind. Just have a respected journa… no, that won’t work either. Too bad Oprah isn’t a viable conduit of Truth in Advertising.

      • I don’t think that my comment was too detailed; I think that I spent too many words covering the book in detail. I could have made my point in a quarter as many if I’d edited.

        That said, my commentary wasn’t so much on your conclusions, something that I noted (“Now, I’m not saying that free speech concerns aren’t relevant. They’re actually very much so…”), but rather your analysis, and specifically the facts of the (metaphorical) case. Amazon taking on a policy that, say, they won’t carry books designed to trick the uneducated into engaging in criminal activity is very different from them taking on a policy that they won’t carry books which promote an antivaccine viewpoint… even if the implications and the slippery slope overlap considerably.

        If nothing else, I’m fond of the idea — and not sure where I first heard it — that the true fallacy of the slippery slope is the idea that we’re ever not on it.

        Of course, Amazon isn’t actually saying what they’re doing. It could even be something more mundane (e.g. Amazon de-listing books after finding evidence of review manipulation)… but, in the absence of a statement, we can only look at the surrounding circumstances.

        And those circumstances show Amazon facing a crisis of both ethics and public relations.

        Right now, the antivaccine movement and the medical pseudoscience it is closely tied to has achieved unprecedented penetration into our society — despite how utterly removed it is from anything even resembling reality.

        This sheer insanity and misinformation has become a serious threat to public health. Economically, it’s wasting millions of dollars per year in efforts to contain outbreaks… and, on a more human level, it’s causing people to suffer and die from diseases that were once on the verge of being wiped out entirely. According to the CDC, there have been six outbreaks so far this year in the US, accounting for 268 cases. Each one of those outbreaks costs hundreds of thousands of dollars of public funds — a 2013 outbreak in New York caused by a single unvaccinated adolescent traveler, for instance, cost the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene $394,448 in direct costs… never mind the estimated 10,054 man-hours of effort that was spent containing it.

        These outbreaks are occurring more and more often. This year, for the first time, the World Health Organization effectively named the antivaccination movement as one of the top ten threats they see to global health.

        It is perhaps unsurprising that a lot of media attention has been focused on the matter as a result. The antivaccine movement has been around for a long time (it’s been around in some form or another since the 1800s, with most of the more venerable current organizations dating back to a really terrible 1982 “documentary” entitled “DPT: Vaccine Roulette.”), but it’s only in the last decade or so that it’s started to have this sort of serious impact and penetration… so the question has often become, “What’s changed?”

        Okay, so it’s rarely put quite like that, but that’s the general thrust of much of the media coverage.

        Until sometime in the last few years, the media has generally focused on the simplistic answer of Wakefield’s fraudulent 1998 paper on the autism/vaccine link when they bothered asking that question at all. More recently, they’ve been focusing on the somewhat more sophisticated (and somewhat more accurate) answer of discussing the role of the more modern gatekeepers of information — companies and services like Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Amazon.

        All of them have, deservedly, gotten quite a bit of flak over this — and, especially, the way that their (automated) sorting and recommendation algorithms are both manipulable and designed to promote engagement and consumption at the expense of all else. This results in them recommending and promoting content that’s often lacking in value or substance, or even… well, utter bullshit. Bullshit and conspiracy theories are interesting, after all, and that means engagement… even before the frauds and loons start working to promote things further.

        It’s worth noting that this isn’t a censorship thing, per se. It’s criticism of the companies for the way that their automated processes recommend and promote antivaccine content. I just did an Amazon search for “vaccines” — and all ten of the ten top results were antivaccine propaganda (I can’t say “books”, however, because Result #10 was the pseudo-documentary “Trace Amounts”).

        This isn’t a problem of Amazon selling this stuff. To use Mrs. Q’s bookstore analogy, this isn’t about Amazon having a holocaust revisionism section — it’s about Amazon featuring holocaust denialist propaganda as the face of their World War II History section.

        I mentioned the World Health Organization earlier. They’re not the only group that’s been involved in this, and the pressure isn’t just coming from the media. Congressmen and organizations such as the American Medical Association have joined in as well.

        Predictably — these are companies, with all that entails — they’ve been making a show of taking steps.

        Perhaps more predictably, few of those steps involve wrestling with the problems central to their algorithms and systems — and instead involve trying to patch things in various ways, looking for a “quick fix.” YouTube has demonetized a number of antivaccine videos. Facebook has stopped accepting Larry Cook’s advertising money.

        Amidst all of this, Wired magazine put out an article on March 11, discussing the issue as it applies to Amazon and singling out two books in Amazon’s store. It can be found at https://www.wired.co.uk/article/amazon-autism-fake-cure-books .

        I assume that someone saw it… because those are the two books that Amazon delisted.

        Those are the facts of the case, as best I can tell… and please forgive me if I meandered. I haven’t had much sleep, it’s hard to focus, I’m writing this bit-by-bit as I have the time, and any sort of setting the stage inevitably involves a lot of details and tangents unless you’re willing to fall into the fallacy of the single cause.

        That said… hopefully this shows you why I found your analysis woefully incomplete.

        • Thanks, Alexander. The clarification (and the comment) is useful, though on this topic, my position is that not much analysis should be needed. Amazon has perilously close to a monopoly on book sales, and certainly monopoly-like power over what books get read. It doesn’t matter whether the book in question pushes dangerous medical theories or dangerous politics, or any other topic. I don’t trust Amazon to decide what I can read, nor do I trust someone’s assessment of what words or ideas are dangerous and that must be suppressed to manipulate thought. It’s not really a slippery slope, it’s a sheer cliff. The remedy for “dangerous’ speech is illuminating speech. Like yours.

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