Amazon Is Used to Promote White Supremacist Merchandise and Views, Report Says

Posted July 8, 2018 4:52 p.m. EDT

Two nonprofits are criticizing Amazon for allowing its platforms to spread white supremacy and racism, identifying in a report how shoppers can buy onesies for babies stamped with alt-right images, Nazi-themed action figures and anti-Semitic books and music.

The report, which was released Friday by the Partnership for Working Families and the Action Center on Race and the Economy, said Amazon’s policies allow it to bar hateful or offensive merchandise and content, but the policies are “weak and inadequately enforced” and allow hate groups to “generate revenue, propagate their ideas and grow their movements.”

The report outlines a number of items available as of June, including a costume that makes it look as if wearers have marks around their neck from being hanged from a noose, and onesies for babies that include images of a burning cross emblazoned across the front and Pepe the Frog.

The report identified dozens of e-books being sold in Amazon Kindle formats that were published by groups labeled “hate organizations” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremist groups.

It also criticized Amazon’s CloudFront content delivery network for “facilitating the publication and distribution of digital media” associated with Islamophobia.

As of Sunday afternoon, Amazon appeared to have removed many of the items identified in the report but others, such as a sword with Nazi symbols, remained.

“Either Amazon does not find the materials outlined in this report offensive or otherwise contrary to its policies, or it does not consistently enforce its own policies,” the report said. “Amazon has been reactive, not proactive, in its response to use of its site by peddlers of hate.”

In the report, the organizations asked Amazon to develop better policies for policing its platforms, to destroy hateful merchandise in its warehouses and to stop allowing such goods and content to be distributed through its services.

An Amazon spokesman said in a statement Sunday that third-party sellers that use its marketplace service “must follow our guidelines and those who don’t are subject to swift action including potential removal of their account.”

Amazon did not answer questions about what specific items it had removed or what measures it was taking to vet other merchandise. The Washington Post reported that the company was working to remove neo-Nazi bands from its music platform.

“They’re making money, they are doing business with the people who are selling these things,” said Mariah Montgomery, campaign director for the Partnership for Working Families and one of the report’s authors. “The company has tremendous resources, and some of them should be devoted to making sure they are not propping up racist organizations.”

Amazon reported a net income of more than $1.6 billion in the first quarter of 2018, more than double the amount for the same period in 2017.

The debate over how emerging technologies are being harnessed by those looking to spread hateful or bigoted ideas has raged for decades. In 2000, Yahoo was sued because it allowed internet users in France to visit its auction sites, which sold Nazi memorabilia.

But the debate has ramped up in recent years with an emboldening of white supremacist and anti-Semitic groups and pressure from countries in Europe to get U.S. technology companies to crack down on hate speech, said Danielle Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and author of the book “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace.”

Nationally, the number of reported anti-Semitic incidents surged 57 percent in 2017, up to 1,986 from 1,267 in the previous year, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which linked the increase to the divisive state of U.S. politics, a rise of extremists and the effects of social media.

“This isn’t happening in a vacuum, this report,” Citron said Sunday. “It’s happening when there’s a lot of pressure on companies to remove and filter and block hate speech.”

Citron said companies are not legally liable for distributing goods or merchandise that reflect hate, though such practices might violate a company’s policy. She said Amazon has faced less scrutiny compared with companies like Twitter and Facebook, which are rethinking their policies.

“This is a conversation about morals and ethics and their own terms of service,” she said.

She warned, though, about the danger of overreaching. The report called on Amazon to get input from groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center to help it monitor and react to hate groups, but the center itself has faced criticism about how it classifies extremism and hate.

“Unless we’re really disciplined in how we define it, with examples, and we err on the side of narrow, it can grow in ways that are unintended,” Citron said.