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Amazon throws its weight around

Culture | A Q&A with delisted author Ryan T. Anderson about Big Tech censorship
by Megan Basham
Posted 2/23/21, 05:23 pm

If you want to buy Adolph Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf on Amazon, all it takes is a couple of clicks. The same goes if you’re interested in learning to make bombs from The Anarchist’s Cookbook or reading Adult-Child Sex: A Philosophical Defense, an academic treatise that justifies some acts of pedophilia. But neither the online retail giant nor any of its subsidiaries will sell you Ryan T. Anderson’s 2018 bestseller, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. On Sunday, Amazon removed the book from its main retail site, as well as its audiobook platform, Audible, and its used book company, AbeBooks.

Over the past week, Anderson, who heads the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has urged Congress to vote no on the Equality Act, a bill that would make gender identity a protected class under civil rights law. The day after Amazon removed When Harry Became Sally from its cybershelves, Twitter placed this warning on tweets that included images of the book’s cover: “The following media contains potentially sensitive content.” And for several hours, the book was unavailable for sale on the Apple Books app.

The Association of American Publishers and the American Booksellers Association estimate Amazon accounts for as much as 70 to 80 percent of U.S. book sales. “They aren’t gaming the system, they own the system,” literary agent Rick Pascocello told The Wall Street Journal in 2019.

The megaretailer has a history of suppressing material that runs afoul of LGBT orthodoxy. In July 2019, it began removing books advocating therapeutic or spiritual practices for dealing with unwanted same-sex attraction, as well as books from ex-gay authors. Last June, it blocked publisher Regnery from purchasing ads for Abigail Shrier’s book, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. And in August, after 3½ years with no incident, it stopped selling the book Health Hazards of Homosexuality.

I spoke with Anderson about Amazon delisting his book. I also reached out to Amazon and received no response. Here is an edited version of our conversation.

You are one of the most prominent critics of the Equality Act. Do you feel like Amazon’s timing on this was strategic? My publisher reached out to Amazon asking what’s going on, and they haven’t heard back. And, obviously, this is a concern, not just for my book, because my book is three years old, and it’s already sold well. Amazon controls a huge market share in the United States. And they can now pressure publishers into not publishing controversial books. If you are a publisher, you might say, “If we publish this and Amazon yanks it, are we ever going to sell enough books to recoup our costs?” So this could have a stifling effect on the entire market of book writing, book publishing, and book buying. … And now [Amazon] might be using its market dominance to actually distort the market.

I’ve heard some conservative Christians argue that, as much as we may not like it, Big Tech is made up of private companies that can do what they like. What are your thoughts on that? That it’s not true. And it’s never been true. [Our government] has never said private businesses can do anything they like. The most obvious example, though it’s not morally equivalent, is if Amazon said, we’re not going to sell books by authors of a certain race, or we’re not going to sell books to buyers of a certain religion. We would say private businesses can’t do that, right? In the same way the electric company can’t say, we don’t provide electricity to conservative homes any longer.

We all realize that economic liberties have limits. Now historically, we’ve had robust competition. If one local bookstore decided not to sell a conservative book, other independent bookstores would carry it. We could say, leave it to the market. But when companies grow so large and exercise so much power, I think it’s a little naive for people to say, just leave it to private businesses. Just as big government can be a threat to our liberty and to our flourishing, so, too, can big business, particularly Big Tech.

To further play devil’s advocate, one specific challenge I’ve heard is that if Christian baker Jack Phillips can’t be forced to bake a cake for a gay wedding, Amazon can’t be forced to sell Ryan Anderson's book. In one of the books [of mine] that [Amazon] is still selling I’ve written precisely on this—how do we think about the tension between nondiscrimination laws and the free exercise of religion or free speech. So is Amazon asserting a religious claim, that it violates their religious beliefs to sell my book? Because if that’s the case, let’s hear it! And, if so, I would want to know how selling Mein Kampf doesn’t violate their religious beliefs, but selling my book does.

Now maybe they’re saying it’s a free speech claim, like, we only sell books that we agree with. But again, when you’re looking at all the other books that Amazon sells, it’s hard to see that. In Jack Phillips’ case, he says, I only make custom-order cakes that support messages and events that I do agree with, right? So he wouldn’t do anti-American cakes. He wouldn’t do a “happy divorce” cake. He wouldn’t do cakes with lewd images. He ran his entire business in keeping with a certain moral vision. If Amazon wants to say that’s the type of business they are, then let us know about it. Because it doesn’t seem like that’s what they’ve been doing.

Another set of arguments is that if Jack Phillips had a policy of not serving gay people at all, I don’t think you would have seen any conservative defending him. His argument wasn’t that as a private business, he can do what he wants. His argument was that there’s an important distinction between saying, I don’t serve gay people, and, I don’t celebrate things that I don’t believe are moral. A lot of people on the left refused to acknowledge that distinction.

If Amazon wants to say, look, we have sincerely held beliefs about transgender issues, and we don’t sell books that violate our sincerely held beliefs, like, OK, just let us know. Because the way that they’ve marketed themselves to customers is that they sell all books worth reading, not just books they agree with.

So you might want to reach out to them for comment on that.

I tried! Other journalists have reached out, and there have been stories that posted yesterday, stories that posted today. And the universal thing that the journalists are reporting is that Amazon is refusing to comment.

In one story I read, the reporter said Amazon pointed her to its guidelines on hate speech. So let’s talk about the content of your book because that seems to be an inference that they’re classifying it as hate speech. If so, it took them three years to discover it. It’s sold tens of thousands of copies through Amazon. And so the timing of this is suspicious, it being the very week when the House of Representatives is going to ram through the Equality Act.

But also, anyone who has read the book will tell you that even if they disagree with it, it is a model for how someone with my perspective on the issue should write. It has 30 or 40 pages of footnotes. At the end of the book, I cite all the relevant scholarly sources. It was endorsed by the former psychiatrist in chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, by a professor of neuroscience at Boston University, by a professor of neurobiology at the University of Utah, by a former professor of psychology at New York University, by a medical ethicist at Columbia’s medical school. This isn’t some fringe, bomb-throwing, red meat, name-calling book. This is about as mainstream as you get from someone who holds the positions that I hold.

So it seems like it doesn’t matter how charitably you say it, or how rigorously you argue if you have the opinion that I have. It’s about the position that Orthodox Christianity holds on this issue, not about the way that we say it.

Given that Amazon has so far not responded to requests for comment from any news outlet, do you feel like they are testing the waters with your book, seeing how long they can hold out? You know, all throughout the Trump years, there were various hearings on Capitol Hill, and the Department of Justice filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google. There were real fears from Big Tech that if they engaged in too much blatant censorship, there might be legal ramifications. Now they may be saying, there’s a new sheriff in town. But I don’t know because no one from Amazon has said a word about this to me or to the publisher, and so far they’re not responding to the press.

As far as tactics, I’m looking at what happened with Abigail Shrier’s book. Target similarly delisted it. But once there was mass coverage in the press and public outcry, they reversed course. Should conservatives continue to make their voices heard through complaints and boycotts now that they have less power in Washington? Is that enough? In the short run, yes, it’s going to have to be enough. Consumers complain and perhaps cancel Amazon Prime accounts and start shopping at Barnes and Noble, Target, and directly from Encounter Books. And it may very well be that economic pressure in the short run is what forces Amazon to change its policy.

But in the long run, I think conservatives are going to have to think about what the limits of economic liberties are when it comes to Big Tech. We have various limits for mom-and-pop stores, right? They have all sorts of rules and regulations that they have to comply with to be on Main Street. We also are going to have to think about, what are the rules and regulations that a business is going to have to comply with to be on the cyberstreets? Just saying it’s a private business, they can do whatever they want, really doesn’t address those questions at all.

The timing was interesting with Apple and Twitter making some moves on your book. Someone said [Twitter and Apple] might have, you know, initially gone along with what Amazon was doing and then had second thoughts. Who knows, right? Because again, no one’s communicating. And there’s a lack of transparency on these issues, which I think also leads many consumers to be a little skeptical: How much can we just trust that Big Tech is actually doing what’s in the common good vs. their own private interests?

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Megan Basham

Megan is film and television editor for WORLD and co-host for WORLD Radio. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide to Having It All. Megan resides with her husband, Brian Basham, and their two daughters in Charlotte, N.C. Follow her on Twitter on @megbasham.

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  • Andy Knudsen
    Posted: Tue, 02/23/2021 08:49 pm

    This is a major mistake by Amazon that I hope is corrected. I disagree with Ryan T. Anderson that the government should force the company to sell the book, but I agree that the company is being very inconsistent by selling books like Mein Kampf and not this one.

  • MS
    Posted: Wed, 02/24/2021 03:52 pm

    This gets very close to the issue. Maybe they can't be "forced to sell a book" - but they at least should be forced to say why they aren't selling a book. And if that reason is discriminatory... that is (or should be) illegal.  The differences he cites vs a religious liberty claim is important (what constitutional liberty, specifically, is Amazon asserting in shutting this down? And do they apply that standard consistently, or just as an excuse to target somebody they dislike?) When we excuse this behavior based on "private businesses can do whatever they want" reasoning, we're minimizing that distinction - why is racial discrimination always illegal (even by a private business), but this kind of discrimination is ok? 

    We need to think through what are the proper ways to protect "constitutional" liberties when they are threatened by non-government entities - and therefore not strictly protected by the constitution (which only keeps the government from infringing on them). Actions by Big Tech have similar ramifications to government actions - and the principles underpinning the constituion seem to be increasingly at risk. At some point, we need a more robust framework for protecting freedom of speech and freedom of religion in a public sphere dominated by a small number of enormous corporations. Boycotts alone seem a terribly insufficient response - and offer very little protection against the "tyranny of the majority" in this kind of context.

  • Steve SoCal
    Posted: Tue, 02/23/2021 10:45 pm

    If we don't want to be dominated by the whims of rich and powerful people and their milieu, we need to make decisions on a regular basis to find other means of doing things that will give less money and support to them and more money and support to people who are doing good.  But how many of us have the willpower to make those kinds of decisions and maybe break away from some of our addictions to the products and convenience of certain tech companies.  And, even if our decisions don't make any difference in their actions, what ever happened to making right decisions, and actually doing the right things, simply because they are right?

  • OldMike
    Posted: Tue, 02/23/2021 11:19 pm

    I'm going to cancel my Amazon Prime membership. Amazon and the other internet giants have gained too much power over the choices people make. Even if the main thing I can do isn't really going to bother them, at least I know I'm not directly supporting them any longer. 

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Wed, 02/24/2021 04:33 am

    Good job Mike! Well stated Steve! You make my day!

  • Momof6plus3
    Posted: Wed, 02/24/2021 04:22 pm

    FYI....this book IS available on Nooks (Barnes and Noble), at least it is today.  

  •  BOBGUTJAHR's picture
    Posted: Wed, 02/24/2021 05:13 pm

    In the 1940s, A&P was successfully sued as a monopoly because they MIGHT become predatory.  The case against big tech seems conceptually straight forward.

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Sat, 02/27/2021 07:52 am

    I conatcted Amazon's "Customer Service" and had a very nice "chat" with the rep, presumably in India. She at first directed me to an out of print answer to Anderson's, "Let Harry Become Sally." When I pointed that out she did some more looking and offer other options. She was apologetic and I suspect that she had no idea about this issue. She offered me a $10 Promo to be added to my account for my inconvenience. I turned this down. Later I received a long follow up from Amazon with ways to contact Customer Service, but no actual response to my inquiry. At the end they asked if this reply was helpful. When I clicked "NO" it went t othe typical survey of how my Customer Service Rep did. This was an on line chat since it occurredd around 0603 EST. I told them what I thought about them removing Anderson's book and also shared that I hoped this particular Customer Service Rep would realize the type of company she worked for and would find another job.

    One more item. This is rhetorical but real. In a fallen world full of sinners who own businsses how do we decide which ones to frequent and which to avoid? This is actually quite a perplexing issue as time and businesses come and go as do issues. On the surface cancelling subscriptions and memeberships as well as not buying certain products and shopping elsewhere might be the answer for some. But I think it is much more complex than that. 

  • Steve SoCal
    Posted: Thu, 02/25/2021 12:00 pm

    Steve, in response to your question, which is very valid, I would simply say that when we go down the logical path of that question, in most cases we end up shrugging our shoulders and proceeding with whatever is easy and lets us conveniently do and buy whatever we want.  For me, if a company is going out of it's way to promote and push something evil within society, I will try to find an alternative and stick to that.  Obviously, a major bookseller will stock plenty of books with which I disagree, so that won't necessarily change my mind on using their services.  But if they make a specific point to stomp on the voices and rights of Christian people, and they actively push an evil agenda, that is different.  I will do my best to cut off my support for them and find alternatives, those that seem to make an effort to at least be fair and not driven by an evil agenda, and even better if they are a Christian owned business.  It's not easy, but I feel like we can at least really try to not support what is wrong.

  • LL
    Posted: Fri, 02/26/2021 11:40 am

    There is a watchdog group called "2nd vote"  (1st vote is elections, 2nd vote is your dollars) which looks where corporations donate and what they believe in and give them ratings in a few different categories.  For the low rated ones it usually gives alternates.  I know we have used this to help in these decisions.  

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Sat, 02/27/2021 07:50 am

    My question in the last paragraph was posited as "rhetorical". As I understand the word it means "asked merely for effect with no answer sought or expected." I put it this way because as I stated this is a complex issue more than most proposed solutions which I have seen. My hope is that we will all think this through. One scripture passage that might seem tangential or unrelated does come to mind with some bearing on this topic. 1 Corinthians 5:9-13. Also seemingly unrelated is an observation/question from our country's past. Why did so many strident abolitionists and even leaders of manumission societies still own slaves?

  • AlanE
    Posted: Thu, 02/25/2021 11:37 am

    Not that long ago, I read a blog post cautioning Christians about buying all their books from Amazon. The point was that, if we continue making our book purchases at Amazon, eventually we will make Amazon the sole arbiter of which Christian books get published and which do not. While Ryan Anderson's book is not a Christian book, this illustrates well the point the blogger was making. 

  • Steve SoCal
    Posted: Thu, 02/25/2021 12:31 pm

    One practical piece of advice for anyone trying to support good content providers, publishers, etc.  You can often search and find the website of the actual author, publisher, or producer.  In many cases, they will be able to sell and ship the item directly, or they can point you to a good source where their product can be found.  Even paying full price, it can be really refreshing to support a good cause.

  • My Two Cents
    Posted: Thu, 03/04/2021 04:48 pm

    I discovered that my public library has a copy of this book on CD. It has been checked out only one other time. I became number 2. I also checked book sources where I usually buy from, and it was "not available" or "out of stock." Check your libraries, folks!

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Sat, 03/06/2021 06:12 am

    This article is old now and I'm not sure if anyone looks back at it or not.

    Most of you know how Amazon, Target, Barnes & Noble and others have been removing books from their shelves, real and virtual, in their attempts at silencing eternal and self-evident truths and morals. For what it is worth I've not been comfortable with what seems to be a knee jerk reaction by some to cancel their Amazon Prime memberships. Though I understand and do not question their motives, I understand the rationale. But the more I think about this and the more I see the cancel culture and misguided censorship by Elitists, like Amazon, the more I believe we can't avoid every business who falls lockstep behind their example. I've decided to make a point of posting reviews on Amazon for good quality books such as this that follows (below). I posted this as part of a review for Gene Edward Veith's "Post Christian" as well as the standard "Fahrenheit 451" and will continue to do so. I don't know what will happen with these reviews but suspect many or most will be also removed. But if many concerned people follow my example...?!

    Also I noticed that Amazon has included an open response area near the bottom of the "page" after some books asking for feedback on how make our shopping experience better. I encourage others to do something similar. I don't know how long Amazon will continue this nor  how prevalent this window will be. I think i might only be available one time after your first search.

    As an example, here is part of what I wrote as my "review" for Fahrenheit 451:

    Amazon has in essence become one of the "firemen" of this book and needs to stop censoring books based on your own narrow minded and misguided prejudices. More and more I am one of many who are looking elsewhere for books and other products. Your "virtual book burning" by removing books you don't like is a perfect example for us on how to create an ignorant and compliant populace. Thank you. Your virtue signaling and trumpeting your own self-righteous moral superiority is a transparent farce. Soon there will likely be a 21st Century version of "Fahrenheit 451" exposing Amazon and other like-minded lackies who see themselves as guardians of our conscience and morals. Will Amazon carry that book? I'm not sure what "temperature" is required to burn, remove, books from your listings but it is lower, more subtle and less apparent than the bonfires of that book's "firemen," but is no less repugnant!