Amazon Execs Can't Define Porn, but They Know It When They See It

Last Updated Jan 10, 2011 5:27 PM EST

Amazon (AMZN) has taken some major hits over its seemingly whimsical decisions to sometimes sell controversial books or films and sometimes to yank them from its virtual shelves. Authors and publishers frequently had been that Amazon didn't give them a way to know whether they complied with the company's content guidelines.

But Amazon actually does provide its guidelines online, as erotica author Esmeralda Greene has noticed. (Some of Greene's own work has been recently disappeared at Amazon.) However, the guidelines are so general and vague that it's all but impossible for anyone to know if they've crossed Amazon's blurry line. On top of that, Amazon's enforcement seems capricious.

Some of the guidelines are clear enough. For example, you can't sell something illegal or stolen and you can't infringe on someone's privacy. However, the two guidelines that likely drive Amazon's decisions (although the company never points to specific ones) are the following:

Pornography Pornography and hard-core material that depicts graphic sexual acts.

Offensive Material What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect. Amazon Digital Services, Inc. reserves the right to determine the appropriateness of Titles sold on our site.

There you have it -- a pornography definition that could conceivable include the Kama Sutra, Joyce's Ulysses, a lot of popular fiction, and good old-fashioned smut (and nothing but). Apparently the ghost of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stuart is helping Amazon make policy:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that. [Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964)]
Even a "serious" independent film like The Brown Bunny, which includes an explicit oral sex scene involving actress Chloe Sevigny, is on sale at Amazon. (So is 9 Songs, a Michael Winterbottom film that features its unknown leads in multiple scenes of actual intercourse.) And as I've previously reported, Amazon allows material to stay that is at least as graphic and extreme as what it takes down.

So how are customers, publishers, or producers supposed to know when what they want or create will fall into the offensive category? It's simple: they can't. Greene thinks that Amazon is experimenting with a new policy, picking some higher-selling erotica titles to see what sort of push back consumers offer.

That might be so, and clearly that's within Amazon's legal rights. But is it wise to do so? No.

Vague standards allow individual employees to, intentionally or not, create their own versions of corporate strategy. That leaves Amazon in the position of always angering customers, who either object to the removal of specific content or who object to similar titles that remain for sale. So long as Amazon tries to position itself as a free speech champion while inconsistently purging what it carries, it cannot win.

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    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.