ABFE Criticizes Congressman for Challenging Amazon on Anti-Vaccine Titles

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On March 1, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos requesting information from Amazon regarding anti-vaccine content on its site.

ABFE logoIn the letter, Rep. Schiff expresses his concern that Amazon’s search results include products and content that discourage parents from vaccinating their children, citing a February CNN report that found that searches on Amazon related to vaccines often led to results for what the report refers to as “medically and scientifically inaccurate information.” He additionally points to the report’s finding that Amazon accepts paid advertising that discourages vaccination.

Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, defended the company’s title selection, according to the New York Times. In a letter to Rep. Schiff, Huseman explained that Amazon’s guidelines “do not specifically address content about vaccines.” He said Amazon provided customers “with access to a variety of viewpoints, including books and videos that some customers may find objectionable,” the Times reported.

That said, the article reported that Amazon had removed two titles from its online store that dealt with “cures” for autism, Healing the Symptoms Known as Autism and Fight Autism and Win. Amazon also removed an anti-vaccine documentary from its streaming service.

The American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE) defended Amazon’s right to sell legally published, First Amendment-protected materials some may find objectionable. “Booksellers must be able to curate their stores as they see fit, without interference from politicians or others who are seeking to shut down an opposing viewpoint,” said David Grogan, director of ABFE, who said Schiff’s letter was an overreach that could set a dangerous precedent. “While we understand that the vaccine topic is emotional and highly charged, ABFE explicitly opposes anyone, especially elected officials, asking a bookstore to justify the titles it sells online or in its store. Bookstores are free to choose whether or not to carry titles in favor of, or opposing, vaccines. It’s hard not to read Rep. Schiff’s letter as an attempt to bully Amazon into removing certain titles that he believes are inappropriate or misleading. Throughout history, governments have censored books under the guise that is it is for the common good and it is precisely this very reason why we have a First Amendment — to protect us from a government that would rather squelch debate than promote dialogue.”

Schiff’s letter notes, “The algorithms which power social media platforms and Amazon’s recommendations are not designed to distinguish quality information from misinformation or misleading information and, as a result, harmful anti-vaccine messages have been able to thrive and spread. Repetition of information, even if false, can often be mistaken for accuracy, and exposure to anti-vaccine content via your web service may negatively shape user attitudes towards vaccination.”

Margo Baldwin, president and publisher of Chelsea Green Publishing, said her publishing house “vehemently” opposes Congressman Schiff’s “efforts to intimidate booksellers.” She is calling on all “publishers, booksellers, and the general public to actively resist this threat to censor books, movies, online content and other information that is deemed ‘dangerous’ by the powers that be.”

Chelsea Green has been publishing books on the politics and practice of sustainable living for 35 years, Baldwin told BTW, and she said that the house takes pride in publishing authors who are pushing the boundaries of conventional practices, whether that is in food and farming, environmental topics, economics, or holistic and integrative health and wellness.

“What that often means is going against the conventional wisdom of the times and challenging people with new ideas and findings,” Baldwin explained. “So, we find it particularly alarming when politicians start warning booksellers that the books and other products they sell may contain dangerous ‘misinformation’ that should be banned. Down this road lies censorship and totalitarianism and it should be resisted by everyone who cares about freedom of expression and the right to have full access to the information they choose to consume.”

In his letter, Rep. Schiff asked Amazon to provide responses to questions like “Do you accept paid advertising from anti-vaccine activists and groups on your platforms? How much has been spent in the past year on advertising on this topic?” and “What steps do you currently take to prevent anti-vaccine videos or information from being recommended to users, either algorithmically or as a suggested search result?”

Shortly after the letter was published, Amazon removed anti-vaccine documentaries from its streaming service, according to The Hill.

Schiff’s letter is “particularly outrageous,” Baldwin said, explaining that Schiff is setting himself up as an arbiter of what people should and should not be able to read. Grogan noted that calls to ban books that most people consider “fringe” are often ignored or, in some cases, lauded. “But it is the slippery slope defined. Today it is anti-vaccinations, tomorrow it will be some other topic a politician finds offensive or objectionable.”

Last month, Rep. Schiff sent a letter to Sundar Pichai and Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive officers of Google and Facebook, to express similar concerns about YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.