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The Biggest Problem in the Kindle Store Are the Folks (Not) Running the Store

this car delivers conspiracy theories and spam

A story broke this past week that reminded me about a post I had been wanting to write.

The Atlantic and ProPublica partnered on a deep dive into the Kindle Store’s problem with white supremacists, but they didn’t quite get to the root of the story.

Give me, a white man, a reason to live,” a user posted to the anonymous message board 4chan in the summer of 2017. “Should I get a hobby. What interests can I pursue to save myself from total despair. How do you go on living.”

A fellow user had a suggestion: “Please write a concise book of only factual indisputable information exposing the Jews,” focusing on “their selling of our high tech secrets to China/Russia” and “their long track record of pedophilia and perversion etc.”

The man seeking advice was intrigued. “And who would publish it and who would put it in their bookstores that would make it worth the trouble,” he asked.

The answer came a few minutes later. “Self-publish to Amazon,” his interlocutor replied.

“Kindle will publish anything,” a third user chimed in.

The thing about this story is that it is a slight variation on the same tale we’ve heard on an annual basis for the past decade. The current situation involves white supremacists, but in the past Amazon has been plagued by scammers, spammers, more scammers, content farmers (aka catfishing), book stuffers, yet more scammers, and even more spammers.

We’ve read this type of story so often that you can’t write them off as being the work of an Amazon hater like David Streitfeld of the NYTimes. You also can’t ignore them on the basis that Amazon is only getting coverage because of their high profile. Apple’s brand has similar value as clickbait, and yet we don’t see these stories about Apple Books (and that’s because Apple Books doesn’t have nearly the same volume of problems as the Kindle Store has).

No, as I explained to Ben Collins of CNBC last month when the Coronavirus spam books were first getting attention, the problem is unique to Amazon. "Most of Amazon’s e-book competitors have a content approval process in place that keeps the worst content out," I told him.

When I was talking to Collins last month, I checked Kobo and Play Books and could not find any Coronavirus spam books. Amazon, on the other hand, was filled with them.

"I don’t know if it’s a case of can’t or won’t," I told Collins. "What I do know is that Amazon is the only retailer with this problem. They have the lion’s share of the e-book market revenue, and could easily afford to use the same quality assurance processes as their competitors, and yet they still have this problem."

As Google has demonstrated, it’s not impossible to build a system to keep out evil-doers. Back in 2015 Google had an epic piracy problem in Play Books which was on the same scale as any one of Amazon’s problems in the Kindle Store. Google responded by shutting down new registrations in their publisher portal, and leaving it shut down until they had a process in place to prevent pirates from registering.

As a result, Google reduced their piracy problem from a disaster to a nuisance.

The thing is, folks, Amazon could nip these problems in the bud by building the same systems used by their competitors.  And while the retailer will insist that they have built these systems, Amazon keeps having problems, and Amazon’s competitors do not.

At some point we’re just going to have to conclude that the real problem is actually Amazon and its corporate culture. Until Amazon is willing to make fundamental changes, these stories are never going to stop.

image by SounderBruce via Flickr

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Disgusting Dude April 11, 2020 um 7:52 pm

The question is whose values draw the line?
The Atlantic? The New Republic?

As soon as there is a line, folks will be lining ten deep to protest and boycott over a hundred different things.

Amazon’s position, agree or disagree, is that no line means less stuff hitting the fan and more sales.
They’re in business to make money not enforce somebody’s sense of morality. Anybody’s.
In their model, all animals are equal and none are more equal.

Sure, they could censor anything they want to.
But they don’t want to.
Because it’s not their job. Their job is spelled out in their TOS.
Plus theres no money in acting as thought police.
So they won’t and no amount of handwringing will change a thing.
The least they can do is the most they will do, as slow and as late as they can.

"That’s not the droid you’re looking for, move along, move along. "

Darryl April 11, 2020 um 9:55 pm

Amazon, at least with KDP, is not a gatekeeper. It does not want to be one. Amazon has pretty well cornered self-published e-books. I wonder how Google’s system would fair with Amazon’s volume. As for the latest beat-up, if I wish to read books by white supremacists, who are you or, for that matter Amazon, to seek to deny these books to me? If they are not illegal they should be published. The best way to counter an ideology you don’t agree with is by rational argument, not de-platforming the writer.

Allen F April 11, 2020 um 9:59 pm

Agree with DD …

Slippery slope play.

You’re censoring 'this' – that’s good but it not enough.
You should also be censoring everything anybody claims they don’t like – but not the stuff they do like.

If you think the white supremacists are bad you obviously haven’t been noticing all the anti-white hate speech going out from some parties. Funny that. If 'all' whites were as bad as they want to claim they wouldn’t dare say it. (Yes, I know they’re the same ones that don’t understand that they have the rights to say these things because others – many of them white – were willing to fight for those rights.)

Happy Easter all, the phone lines/towers will melt under the load of calls tomorrow.

Darryl April 11, 2020 um 11:35 pm

Firstly, I wonder how well whatever Google is using would cope with the much greater volume of books on KDP.

So far as the latest beat-up is concerned, who are you to tell me that I can’t read books by white supremacists? Who is Amazon? The best way to deal with abhorrent ideas is to debunk them logically and publicly. Not de-platform the author. One of the things I like most about KDP is that Amazon does not generally try to act as a gatekeeper.

DaveMich April 12, 2020 um 11:18 pm

Amazon will sell almost anything. They have 80+ % of the ebook market.

Google, Apple, Kobo have solid content screening procedures in place. They have slivers of the ebook market.

Where is Amazon’s motivation to copy Google, Apple, Kobo?

Nate Hoffelder April 13, 2020 um 7:06 am

Why would Amazon want to improve the user expereince by filtering out spammers and scammers?

Hmmm, I’m going to have to think about that and get back to you.

Disgusting Dude April 13, 2020 um 9:33 am

Whose experience?
At what cost?
What’s the ROI of catering to the easily offended on the extremes?
Scammers and spammer on KU are stealing from Amazon; the rest make money for tgem, which the whiners in the media don’t.where

And again, where do you draw the line?
Or is it only *some* extremes tgst are repellent?

Last I heard you had to be an adult to shop at Amazon (credit card and all) and competent adults should be able to deal with offensive material by, like, *ignoring* it.
What do the whiners fear, anyway?
If t heir beliefs are so strong and popular what does it matter if a "wrong" book is available?

Barry Marks April 13, 2020 um 1:29 pm

I’m bothered by equating white supremacists with scammers of various kinds. I do think Amazon should do more to avoid scammers and as time goes by they do do more, but not as much as I’d like to see them do. Not nearly as much. I doubt many honest people will object to reasonable methods Amazon might employ to get rid of scams on their site.

People who want to spread hate are a very different thing. As a Jew I find those people despicable. As an American I’m bothered by any attempt to squelch ideas, even abhorrent ones.

In some situations, such as large scale attempts to sway elections with misinformation I agree that it’s necessary and justified, although I’m still bothered by it. But squelching people’s attempts to share their beliefs and ideas by legitimate means is not what this country is about. It’s not what most countries are about. If they can squelch the white supremacist’s ideas they can squelch my ideas or yours.

The best plan is a free exchange of ideas and views.


Disgusting Dude April 14, 2020 um 7:57 am

Some folks think that squelching opinions they dislike will magically make them go away, resulting in a la-la land of handholding and kumbaya.
This after decades of indoctrination has only resulted in greater poarization and stronger opposition to their tactics. It didn’t work for McCarthy in an era of limited gatekept communications yet they think they can somehow make it work in the age of internet, when not even China succeeds in squelching disent with guns and concentration camps.

More than dangerous, it is futile to even try.
You’d think they would remember tbe last time tbey tried to mandate morality.
Prohibition worked out soooo well.

As they: "Never give an order you can’t enforce."

Vikarti Anatra April 16, 2020 um 8:38 am

There is difference between spam books and white supremacist books (or other extreme politics).
People don’t want to read spam so "writer" does this for money.
At least some people do like to read white supremacist (either because they like ideas or want to knew about them). It’s possible writer thinks he has something to say.

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