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SAN FRANCISCO -- During the past 18 months, Amazon has removed two books by David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as several titles by George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party. The online retailer has also prohibited volumes like The Ruling Elite: The Zionist Seizure of World Power and A History of Central Banking and the Enslavement of Mankind.

While few may lament the disappearance of these contentious books, the increasing number of banished titles has set off concern among some of the third-party booksellers who stock Amazon's vast virtual shelves. Amazon, they said, seems to operate under vague or nonexistent rules.

"Amazon reserves the right to determine whether content provides an acceptable experience," said one recent removal notice that the company sent to a bookseller.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been roiled in recent years by controversies that pit freedom of speech against offensive content. Amazon has largely escaped this debate. But with millions of third-party merchants supplying much of what Amazon sells to tens of millions of customers, that ability to maintain a low profile may be reaching its end.

Amazon began as a bookstore and, even as it has moved on to many more lucrative projects, now controls at least two-thirds of the market for new, used and digital volumes in the United States. With its profusion of reader reviews, ability to cut prices without worrying about profitability and its control of the electronic book landscape, to name only three advantages, Amazon has immense power to shape what information people are consuming.

Yet the retailer declines to provide a list of prohibited books, say how they were chosen or even discuss the topic. "Booksellers make decisions every day about what selection of books they choose to offer," Amazon said in a statement.

Gregory Delzer is a Tennessee bookseller whose Amazon listings account for about a third of his sales. "They don't tell us the rules and don't let us have a say," he said. "But they squeeze us for every penny."

Nazi-themed items regularly crop up on Amazon, where they are removed under its policy on "offensive and controversial materials." But those rules pointedly apply "to all products except books, music, video and DVD." Amazon merely says that books for sale on its site "should provide a positive customer experience."

Now Amazon is becoming increasingly proactive in removing Nazi material. It even allowed its own Nazi-themed streaming series The Man in the High Castle to be cleaned up for a tribute book. The series, which began in 2015 and concluded in November, is set in a parallel U.S. where the Germans and the Japanese won World War II.

High Castle is lavish in its use of National Socialist symbols. "There's nothing that there isn't a swastika on," actor Rufus Sewell, who played the Nazi antihero, said in a promotional video. The series promoted its portrayal of "the controlling aesthetic of Hitler" in its nomination for a special effects Emmy.

But in The Man in the High Castle: Creating the Alt World, published in November by Titan Books, the swastikas and eagle-and-crosses were digitally erased from Sewell's uniform, from Times Square and the Statue of Liberty, even from scenes set in Berlin. A note on the copyright page said, "We respect, in this book, the legal and ethical responsibility of not perpetuating the distribution of the symbols of oppression."

An Amazon spokeswoman said, "We did not make editorial edits to the images." Titan, which wanted to market the book in Germany, where laws on Nazi imagery are strict, said Amazon approved the changes.

Some fans of the series said they found reading the book as dystopian as the show itself. "If you can't even have swastikas shown in a book about Nazis taking over America, please do not make books ever again," wrote one reviewer.

When Amazon drops a book from its store, it is as if it never existed. A recent Google search for 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."

Some booksellers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said they had no problem with the retailer converting as many offensive books to dog pages as it wished.

Delzer, the proprietor of a secondhand store in Nashville, Tenn., called Defunct Books, has a different view. "If Amazon executives are so proud of their moral high ground, they should issue memos about which books they are banning instead of keeping sellers and readers in the dark," he said.

In 1998, when Amazon was an ambitious startup, its founder, Jeff Bezos, said, "We want to make every book available -- the good, the bad and the ugly." Customers' reviews, he said, would "let truth loose."

That expansive philosophy narrowed over the years. In 2010, when the news media discovered the self-published Pedophile's Guide to Love and Pleasure on the site, the retailer's first reaction was to hang tough.

"Amazon believes it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable," it said at the time.

That resolution wilted in the face of a barrage of hostility and boycott threats. Amazon pulled the book.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, said Amazon has the same First Amendment right as any retailer.

"Amazon has a First Amendment right to pick and choose the materials they offer," she said. "Despite its size, it does not have to sponsor speech it finds unacceptable."

Retail bookstores rarely stock supremacist literature, for no other reason than it would alienate many customers. The question is whether Amazon, because of its size and power, should behave differently.

"I'm not going to argue for the wider distribution of Nazi material," said Danny Caine of the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kan., who is the author of a critical pamphlet, How to Resist Amazon and Why. "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?"

Business on 02/11/2020

Print Headline: Amazon's book bans draws concern

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