Monday, November 22, 2010

Amazon.com Meets Public Outrage

On November 10, 2010, Amazon.com Inc., America’s largest online retailer, generated controversy over its sale of an e-book titled “The Pedophile's Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child-lover's Code of Conduct”, a self-published book that defends and offers advice to pedophiles, including advice on how to get around the law. Needless to say that when the public found out that the giant retailer was selling an instruction manual aimed at teaching pedophiles how to commit crimes against children – and get away with it – they went livid.

Initially, despite the angry objections, Amazon refused to pull the pro-pedophilia e-book from its product line. Instead, it issued a statement that read: "Amazon believes it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable. Amazon does not support or promote hatred or criminal acts, however, we do support the right of every individual to make their own purchasing decisions."

It was clear that the company was not budging on their decision to keep selling the e-book but that didn’t stop the public. Within a few hours Facebook pages, blog posts and news articles had spread across the internet criticizing the retail giant for endorsing and profiting off a book that incites sexual crimes against children. The rage spread like wildfire and headlines such as the ones below popped up:

Why is Amazon promoting sexual abuse of children?

Is Amazon Peddling Pedophilia?

Profiting off Pedophilia on Amazon.com‎

Book defending pedophilia for sale on Amazon

Amazon Sells Guide For Pedophiles

And after a furious, global protest and threats of boycott, Amazon changed its mind and removed the e-book. The decision was obviously based on potential loss of profits, and damage to the company’s image, not on social and moral responsibility, which many hoped for. If the public hadn’t reacted as heatedly as it did, the book would still be offered for sale.

So that’s the story. Now, I’d like to add my own thoughts on this...

The company’s policies state that “Amazon.com reserves the right to make judgments about whether or not content is appropriate” and that those policies prohibit certain content, including “offensive material” and products that may lead to an “illegal activity”, statements that no doubt left some people with the conclusion that Amazon approved of a book that taught pedophiles how to sexually violate children, an illegal activity. And that a manual on how to molest children just wasn’t offensive enough to apply these policies to. This was a definite strike against them.

As I read more and more about this story, I discovered that many of the individuals that supported the sale of this book stated that the author’s First Amendment rights would be violated if Amazon.com removed/banned/censored the book from its product line. This seemed a little farfetched to me considering Amazon is a private business. But since I don’t live in the United States, I’m not entirely familiar with the Constitution; therefore I had to search for information to try to understand what, if any, role it played in this situation.

One of the more interesting things I ran across was what CNN’s legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin had to say about this e-book and the author’s right to freedom of expression. Apparently, because the work is in its form as a written piece, it is protected under the First Amendment right to free speech. Furthermore, child pornography is illegal when it’s in image form, but text, on the other hand, is considered a work of advocacy, which has won protection in the court under the First Amendment. So, yes, legally the author has a right to write, publish and sell this book. And if the government had ordered Amazon to remove it that would violate the Constitution.

But.

Amazon.com is not the government; it is a privately-owned business that can generally set its own limits and impose any rules it chooses, including the refusal to sell whatever it considers offensive, inappropriate or objectionable, or whatever it feels may damage its image or reduce its profits or anger its shareholders. As a result, Amazon is free to reject a guidebook for pedophiles as part of its product line, and this decision does not, in any way, violate the First Amendment; it is a business decision, not a constitutional attack. Yes, people have a right to write whatever they want, no matter how objectionable, but at the same time, publishers are not obligated to print it, bookstores are not obligated to sell it and consumers are not obligated to buy it. And don’t forget, Amazon has already made it clear that they can – and will – exercise this right as they deem fit in their statement “Amazon.com reserves the right to make judgments about whether or not content is appropriate

People defending this book also kept applying the word ‘freedom’ to their arguments; how important it is to preserve ‘freedom of speech’ above all else. And that we shouldn’t compromise that ‘freedom’ because of an irrational and hysterical protest. And that if Amazon removed this book, it would be violating the author’s ‘freedom of speech’.

How so?

Just like an author has the right (freedom) to put together a book, the public has the right (freedom) to protest its availability - and to boycott a business that sells it. And just like an author has the right (freedom) to request that the book he’s written be added to a company’s product line, a private business has the right (freedom) to refuse. It seems to me that everyone, all around, is exercising their ‘freedom’. And it also seems to me that those that cry out ‘freedom’ the loudest are the first to condemn those that exercise their right to 'freedom' with a different opinion and perspective. The 'freedom’ to express views and opinions freely is afforded to everyone, not just to those whose opinions align with your own.

And finally, some questions...

1) If Amazon’s terms of service prohibit “titles which may lead to illegal activity”, how could a how-to manual for pedophiles not fall under this regulation? Isn’t it possible that this book, which many consider an incitement to sexual crimes against children, may lead to illegal activity?

And...

2) Since the company’s terms of service didn’t apply to a book that caused this much outrage, not to mention bad publicity, then what does it take to get a book rejected by Amazon.com without delay or controversy? And without the threat of boycott?

And...

3) Despite the company stating that it “believes it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable", it has, in the past, removed products from its website. Isn’t the company contradicting itself? And adding more fuel to the fire?

In any case, I think we’ve all learned that if a private enterprise decides to carry (and defend) a publication that society deems morally and socially unacceptable, it can expect the public to rise up and protest. And that no company is too big for society to bring down with its deafening rage. Not even Amazon.

Personally, I’m very pleased that the book is no longer available, and I’d like to write a little more about my opinion about it, about Amazon’s handling of the situation and how I feel about pedophilia. I’d even like to address some of the comments made by Phillip R. Greaves II, author of the self-published book, especially the one where he said to CNN in a phone interview “True pedophiles love children and would never hurt them”. (Try to wrap your head around that warped statement.)

But I won’t be writing about any of that today. I’ll save it for a future post.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your opinion on this matter.

12 comments:

  1. It's still effectively censorship, and even (slightly) government censorship, too, because now no other retailer is going to be willing to carry it, for fear of stirring up the same kind of hornet's nest, and if the guy prints up copies on his own and tries to distribute them, there's no way he's not going to be the target of heavy government surveillance now.

    Which is his own fault, and it turns out I'm pretty much okay with this, the same way I'd be okay with people not selling "Seven Steps to More Effective Abortion-Clinic Bombings," "Make Your Own Anthrax at Home!", "Gay-Bashing for Dummies," "How to Kill Illegal Immigrants and Influence People," etc. But:

    I do often worry, when things like this take off, about whether the public outcry is sufficiently well-informed. I mean, I assume most of the people yelling at Amazon hadn't read the book and knew what was in it only by hearsay. (I never really looked into it myself, since it was pretty clear from the beginning how it was all going to turn out.) I mean, the rumors may have been based on the guy's own summary of the book, or based on the word of people who had actually read it. I don't know. But there is a certain danger in letting large groups of people get riled up about something this inflammatory. Most people aren't going to say, gee, that sounds like a terrible book; I wonder if my sister-in-law's description of it is accurate? or goodness, I wonder if there's an objective summary somewhere, where I could learn more about the book before I write to Amazon about it? They're going to grab the pitchfork and torch and run out the door.

    It looks like this time, it was justified, and things will work out the way they ought, but this sort of thing still makes me nervous. Angry mobs rarely lead anywhere productive, and when they do, a lot of innocent people usually have to get hurt first. It's why I like having, you know, a legal system, with rules and procedures and stuff. I'm a little surprised that selling this kind of thing would have been legal to begin with: it seems like it's one thing to advocate that illegal things should be legal, and it's another thing entirely to distribute strategies for circumventing the law.

    P.S. I also wondered why law enforcement didn't try to get Amazon and everybody to shut up about this. It seems like if you're the police, having a handbook of the strategies pedophiles are going to use to get around the law would be awfully valuable. But maybe they got ahold of one anyway.

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  3. Excellent editorial, Martha----thanks for writing it. I do understand what Mr. Subjunctive is saying, but I guess I'd be one of those in the pitchfork-wielding crowd. The title seems pretty self-explanatory and I'm sure that the book description on Amazon (though I didn't see it) was probably revealing enough to justify the public outcry, without having to read the book. And, of course, the quote you mentioned from the author, "“True pedophiles love children and would never hurt them” is sufficient to make me want to grab my torch and pitchfork.

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  4. beth:

    Honestly, if the title were all I had to go on, I think I would have assumed it was ironic, that somebody was making a not-particularly-funny joke.

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  6. Mr. S, I think he’s already under surveillance since he’s drawn so much attention to himself. Apparently, he’s also (or was) under police protection because he received so many death threats. But what did he expect when he put this book out? That the world would embrace him? Sure, technically it is censorship, but we do it all the time. Just because Amazon is online and not an actual store some city somewhere doesn’t mean people won’t protest and/or boycott. If my local bookstore put this item up for sale, you can be sure that I’d ask the staff, particularly management, if they were seriously planning to sell this type of thing. And if they said yes, I’d tell them that I would no longer be shopping there, a place that sold what I consider is a child abuse manual. And many other consumers would do the same. And there’s no doubt that you’d see people gathering outside one day with picket signs to complain about this, which they are free to do (and yes, it should be in a peaceful, organized, non-violent manner, which is not what always happens because humans can be so stupid at times). So the writer would have the freedom to write that piece of crap, the business (a free enterprise) would have the freedom to sell it and consumers would have the freedom to refuse to buy it. And take their business elsewhere (boycott the company). And to protest (hopefully in a civil manner).

    Incidentally, there were a couple of excerpts of this book on some news sites as well as on other sites on the web, so people could actually see what the content of the book consisted of. I took the time to read them and it made me sick. It wasn’t good. There was actually one piece that explained how to get around the problem of not being able to fit condoms on boys under thirteen. He offers alternatives to this ‘problem’. If this isn’t promoting sexual crimes against children, I don’t know what is. Imagine finding this on your neighbour’s coffee table. What would you think? What would be your reaction? Why on earth would he/she have possession of such a book?

    When I first found out about this book, I swear I thought it was some type of mistake. It was too surreal to be really happening. My husband wondered if it was some type of publicity stunt on Amazon’s part. Something like this would surely draw the public’s attention. But I didn’t think it could be that. That would be like playing Russian roulette; too risky.

    I’ve no doubt the police downloaded a copy of this manual. I can’t imagine them not doing that.

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    Beth, I can’t imagine what this man was expecting when he put out this book. Did he expect the public to embrace sexual crimes against children as a social norm? That this manual would go unnoticed? And did Amazon expect the same thing? Would you shop at a local store that had this book on a shelf? I’d never step foot in there again. They could yell ‘the right to free enterprise’ all they wanted; they’d never see one more dime from me. The need to protect children, our society’s vulnerable, against these slimy individuals is first and foremost. Always.

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  7. I'm not saying people shouldn't protest. I'm not saying I have a problem with what happened, or that I think he's a great guy who has been wronged. I am saying:

    1) It's disingenuous to try to find a way to avoid calling this censorship. It is. Censorship just happens to be the right response to situations like this.

    2) This sort of thing, however appropriate and just in this situation, could also be used to less-noble ends. As we're seeing in U.S. politics, being accused is often enough to ruin lives and companies, whether the accusation has any truth to it or not. See: ACORN. Anybody can make something up about someone else, publicize it, and some portion of the public will assume that where there's smoke, there's fire. (I may be touchier about this than most, because there are still a lot of people who don't make a distinction between pedophile and gay.)

    It makes me nervous that the reaction to Amazon because of this book was so fast and so intense, is all. On the other hand, I hadn't seen any excerpts of it anywhere, didn't know they were available, and wasn't paying that much attention, so maybe I'd be less bothered by it if I'd watched the story play out more attentively.

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  8. I wish we could get some mobs angry about the two wars we're fighting. Everyone was correct to react to the revolting book, but what about the appalling killing going on in the name of freedom? That's disgusting too but apparently no one cares about that.

    mr_s is correct - the mob mentality can be terrifying. We're lucky it worked this time but history shows that's not always the case. Misinformed or under-informed people with attitude are scary.

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  9. Liza, there are so many things in this world that need our attention. But most of the time, people are not aware of them. Or they are aware of them but have become desensitized to them. I’m not sure which is worse. In any case, yes, angry mobs can be quite dangerous, particularly the ones that are mis/under/informed. Those types of people jump on whatever bandwagon is making the loudest noise. They don’t really stand for anything; they just want to join the hysterics. I certainly hope some people took the time to learn a little about this book; there was certainly enough information out there about it. You were even able to get a feel about the author as he was quite vocal about his opinions and thoughts about pedophilia; he was even interviewed by CNN. And he posted his support for this form of child abuse on Facebook, so he certainly made it clear what he was trying to accomplish with that book and how much he supported the sexual violation of children. So yes, people have a right to rise up and protest. And yes, I don’t like when things spin out of control and the public gets crazy. That is very scary indeed.

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  10. Oh, Mr. S, I was never under the impression that you were part of this man’s fan club or some such thing. Wherever did you get that feeling/idea? We’re standing on the same side of the fence in regards to how we feel about this book and how we feel about it being removed. And yes, when Amazon removed the book, it was censoring it. And it’s done it in the past with other products, so obviously it has no problem with that. But it wouldn’t have removed it if it didn’t affect its business. Amazon’s concern was $$$$ and image. The Christmas season was coming and people were threatening to boycott. And we all censor. We censor products, companies, TV shows, books, and even people. No one is open to anything and everything, no matter what they say.

    And I’m even standing on the same side of the fence about your thoughts on angry, unruly mobs and the damage they can cause in situations that don’t warrant it. I have no doubt that many people joined this bandwagon without taking one moment to actually read anything about the situation. There was certainly enough information out there, including from the author himself. And that’s the scary part; that people won’t take the time to inform themselves. Because these same people will join any protest without any information; they’ll base their opinion on someone else’s. I would like to think that some people took the time, as I did, to really check this out, or if they did base their opinion on someone else’s, that it would be from a source that they trust to transmit facts and/or information that is relevant. Still. It’s always best to do your own homework. And as I mentioned earlier, I just couldn’t believe it at first. It was just too surreal to be true, and because I need to base my opinion on more than what someone is telling me, I explore, sometimes for hours and even days. I personally came to the conclusion, because of all the information out there, that this was not a good book. At that point I decided that if Amazon decided to keep selling it, I wasn’t going to be a customer of theirs anymore. They’re free to do their business. And I’m free to take mine elsewhere.

    I certainly understand, and don’t blame you for being very touchy about this since, yes, a lot of people can’t seem to make a distinction between Pedophilia and homosexuality, which I encountered in some comments on many different news sites. And this is going to sound weird, and it’ll sound like I don’t get out much, but that never dawned on me; that people can’t make this distinction. I swear I’d never heard this before. Call me naïve but this is the first time I ran across that. But maybe it’s because I’m so far removed from those types of people that I just don’t cross paths with them. But that’s ignorance; there isn’t a vaccine developed yet to make humanity immune to ignorance. Unfortunately. And even more unfortunate is the fact that it’s these types of people that turn a productive, healthy protest into a crazed mob. Because people assembling together and protesting has, many times, brought great changes to society. Positive ones. The power/gathering of the people when used constructively can laws/make laws/bring about change that’s beneficial to society/world, improve bad situations, provide for equal rights for oppressed groups, etc. That’s the good side of it. The bad side is that the loonies that don’t really stand for anything in particular and just want an opportunity to get unruly climb out from under the rocks, join in and turn what should have been a productive, healthy assembly into a crazed, out of control mob. This I don’t like. But I’m not sure how it should be handled. A society coming/working together can bring about many good changes when handled civilly and the thugs don’t join in. But how do you keep the thugs joining in and turning a good thing into madness when the ‘freedom’ to speak is granted equally to everyone, no matter how ignorant or aggressive they are?

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  11. Whew, love the debate here, if a bit late. I barely heard about this, it was not on my radar before this post, so I didn't follow the story at all. I guess I'm with all of you on these issues. The book is viciously disturbing. The guy has the right to write it. Amazon has the right to sell it. People will be uninformed idiots. Mob mentality is dangerous.

    You are all absolutely right. The biggest shock of my young life was realizing NAMBLA is a real organization. Could not believe it. Good post and conversation.

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  12. Tatiana, this is one of those topics that can be seen from many different perspectives. Everybody is right in some way. And when it comes to groups, I think that a collective protest is good; an unruly mob is not. But we grant our citizens freedom equally, so an angry mob is to be expected. I really enjoy debates like this, unless I'm debating with people that won't allow another perspective, people that are extremely defensive and people that get really mean and start becoming abusive; then I walk away.

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