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This Week in Racism

Should Amazon Let White Supremacists Sell Merchandise on Its Site?

Amazon.com's Marketplace allows people from around the world to sell goods online, and some of those products are tied to hate groups.

by Dave Schilling
14 January 2015, 4:51pm

I finally dropped the coin for Amazon Prime last year, just in time for Christmas, and I won't lie to you—the damn thing changed my life. I get packages seemingly every day, delivered in a timely fashion. Plus, I never have to talk to another human being when I buy things. I'm just a little arrow on a screen now, and I feel liberated. Did you know that you can purchase a 50-pack of paper towels and get it delivered to your house the next day? Why risk the shame, embarrassment, and familial dishonor of being seen at the store with a four-pack of "Pussy Energy Drink"? With Amazon, only your credit card company (and whichever government agency is spying on you that week) needs to know.

Yes, we are truly in some sort of golden age of laziness where anything you can dream of is "eligible for free delivery." That includes items purchased on Amazon Marketplace, the system that allows the average Joe or Jane the ability to sell goods through Amazon.com and make use of Amazon's state-of-the-art wish fulfillment services. And as a recent article from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) points out, a lot of racist Joes and Janes are using Marketplace to sell some pretty nasty things.

This is a free country. If I want to buy White Power by George Lincoln Rockwell, why shouldn't I be able to? After all, the "last and most powerful book written by the founder of the American Nazi Party" is both "hard-hitting" and "easy to read" according to the product description.

Of course, the question isn't whether I should be able to buy T-shirts with big ole swastikas on them—that's what the First Amendment is for—the question is what they're doing for sale on Marketplace, which according to Wired is becoming a larger and larger portion of Amazon's business model. The SPLC blog post quotes an Amazon representative as stating that "Listings for items that Amazon deems offensive are prohibited on Amazon.com." Some examples of offensive products include "Products that promote or glorify hatred, violence, racial, sexual or religious intolerance or promote organizations with such views." You also can't sell human body parts, products retrieved from a disaster or tragedy site (which doesn't explain why Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector is still available for purchase), and crime scene and autopsy photos.

Amazon seems to be doing a great job preventing me from purchasing a severed head from Ground Zero, but are lacking when it comes to the Nazi and white power memorabilia that remains for sale. It may be that it's impossible to police an open marketplace the size of Amazon.com, just in the same way that it's pointless for me to try to prevent people from saying nasty things about me in the comments below this article. But Amazon isn't some fly-by-night deep web site, it's a major retailer. Does it have a responsibility to make sure it's not at all involved in selling paraphernalia of hate? (Through a spokesperson, Amazon declined to comment for this story.)

That's the grand dilemma of our tech-obsessed, constantly connected society. We can order paper towels online and dream of the day when a remote-controlled drone is able to deliver an industrial-sized box of condoms to our doorstep at the push of a button—but we also are now privy to all manner of nasty thoughts, unpleasant news stories, and verbal abuse at the hands of complete strangers. More and more, people are made aware of the dark side of humanity through the magical powers of instant global communication. It makes us angrier and more indignant. We demand corporations like Amazon create policies banning that which we find objectionable, but is that even possible?

Free speech is on all of our minds after the Charlie Hebdo attack, and I fear that these sorts of incidents, where people are murdered for their opinions, are only going to become more common in the future. The internet is giving us more and more opportunities to express ourselves, and the more we speak, the more likely it is we'll offend someone, possibly to the point of rage. If I drew Adolf Hilter 69ing Albert Einstein while Fidel Castro watched and posted it to Facebook, there are at least a few hundred people who would see it. Maybe they would share it. Maybe someone would see it and get upset at my shabby attempt at art. Or take the real-world case of the Canadian college students who had a supposedly "private" Facebook group where they joked about "hate fucking" their female classmates and are now in serious trouble as a result.

I don't want some racist asshole selling Nazi flags through Amazon, because I don't want that guy to have that platform—but that's not an opinion I'm particularly proud of. I would like to live in a world where I'm able to say what I want and express myself. I guess George Lincoln Rockwell did too.

Follow Dave Schilling on Twitter.

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