Amazon Continues To Censor Titles, but Won't Say Why

Last Updated Jan 3, 2011 3:23 PM EST

Amazon (AMZN) has had several close encounters with corporate censorship of late. The retailer has taken to pulling out titles that seem to have connections with such topics as incest and pedophilia. There's just one problem: Amazon is completely inconsistent in what it takes out, often leaving far more lurid and explicit material than what it removed.

The latest seems to be a books with the word "rape" in the title. Author Kyle Michael Sullivan has two titles, How To Rape a Straight Guy and Rape in Holding Cell 6. According to Amazon, the titles "contain content that is in violation of our content guidelines," a general kiss-of-death phrase meaning that the company will stop selling the titles.

Sullivan responded that the "sex in them is not that much more detailed than what you find in Jackie Collins' and Judith Krantz's novels, all of which can be found in a library," and that neither is pornography, although, apparently, some television reporter had labeled them as such.

Gone is the company's one-time claimed stance to support freedom of expression, as my BNET colleague Lydia Dishman has noted. What becomes bewildering from a business vantage is Amazon's refusal to list clear standards for carrying a book or video. The company has ignored inquiries from authors and reporters to clarify its position. And yet, while it removes some titles, it leaves standing others that seem every bit as potentially offensive, if not far more so.

For example, in December, Amazon removed some incest-themed erotica where the characters were all adults, and yet had another title that apparently involved incest and minor characters. Although that now appears to have been pulled, Incest Stories 3: My Dirty Uncle Marty, which I also noted was available, remains listed.

Although Sullivan's books are no longer available, a number of other rape-fantasy Kindle titles are, including:

If you search under Kindle titles for the term rape, there are 539 matches, varying from non-fiction sociology to literary volumes and erotica (or porn, depending on whom you ask). Do the people who remove a title actually read it to see if there is a literary basis? Why remove some explicit titles but not others, even if covering the same topic? The problem Amazon has is the same one that has faced Apple (AAPL). You may want to restrict what material you sell, but if you can't articulate clear standards, you'll face an endless stream of complaints from users, authors/artists, and publishers alike.

And, of course, clear standards are all but impossible to establish in the first place, which is why we keep having these debates.

Apple at least has tried to describe what it will allow and what it won't, and the company has modified its standards at times to make them clearer. Amazon, on the other hand, prefers to operate with compete opacity. So far, it can afford to do so, given the company's current market strength. But there's no guarantee that some combination of Apple, Google (GOOG), Barnes & Noble (BKS) or others won't eventually whittle that lead down, especially as readers shift to ebooks. And if that happens, Amazon's preference for inscrutability could become a liability.

Related:

Image: morgueFile user dave, site standard license.
  • Erik Sherman On Twitter» On Facebook»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.