Amazon may be censoring content and products at the behest of authoritarian governments — while leaving the public and even Amazon’s own shareholders in the dark.
The company is the leading juggernaut of the e-commerce world. Globally, Amazon’s various iterations draw more than 3 billion visits every month, far surpassing its closest competitors. The company hosts dedicated shopping platforms in more than 20 countries and ships to more than 100, either from its own warehouses or through a vast army of third-party sellers. For many customers, Amazon is the online marketplace — and when products and speech disappear from that marketplace, it can seem as if they’ve disappeared from the whole world.
To reach that globe-spanning scale, Amazon has expanded into several countries where governments routinely censor information and suppress human rights. Sometimes, the company has even been complicit in that censorship. Last year, Amazon came under fire for purging search results related to LGBTQIA groups at the behest of authorities in the United Arab Emirates. Several months earlier, the company allegedly capitulated to an edict from Beijing when it wiped all customer ratings and reviews for a book authored by Xi Jinping, after it received negative reviews. Amazon still heavily markets the book on a portal reported to be the fruit of a partnership between the company and the Chinese state apparatus.
However, the true scale of this problem remains unknown. It has become standard practice for companies to release transparency reports showing how they enforce their content rules, how often governments ask for them to suppress material on their platforms, and how much user data they turn over to authorities around the world. But Amazon’s reports focus entirely on data requests from law enforcement — important information, to be sure, but far from the whole picture. Crucially, the reports reveal virtually nothing about why the company takes down products or reviews, or how it responds when governments order them to do so.
Amazon’s silence on censorship is particularly striking compared to other U.S. tech giants. Google first reported data on takedown requests in 2010, setting an important precedent. Thanks to this reporting, we now know Google has seen a dramatic and systematic surge in government demands for content censorship since 2019. Transparency reporting from Facebook and Twitter (at least before Musk) showcases the same “pandemic surge.” Earlier this year, Apple agreed to reveal more about apps removed from the App Store at the behest of government agencies, conceding to sustained shareholder pressure.
Even Amazon’s closest e-commerce rivals have started to read the room: eBay and Etsy both release detailed accounts of how they moderate products and content, as does MercadoLibre, the most popular online marketplace in Latin America. While only eBay tackles the question of government demands to delist items, all the rest are still far ahead of Amazon.
The lack of information is a problem for shareholders and users alike. Investors play a critical role in holding corporations accountable by ensuring that companies like Amazon are upholding their human rights commitments and avoiding risky behaviors. But without more transparency, investors are left in the dark.
That’s why we’re taking action. Spearheaded by the Adrian Dominican Sisters and OpenMIC, a group of shareholders is calling on Amazon to release more detailed information about its removal and restriction practices, relying on Ranking Digital Rights’ industry analysis. The formal resolution was submitted in December and will come up for a vote at Amazon’s investor meeting in May. Among the questions we’re hoping Amazon will finally answer: How many takedown requests does Amazon receive? From which governments? How many products are removed due to government demands or to comply with local laws? And, importantly, how many of these removals are made in anticipation of government requests, potentially skirting official review processes? This information is vital for investors and the public to get a clear picture of what’s going on at Amazon.
Shareholder pressure has moved the needle at Amazon before, recently pushing the company to halt sales of facial recognition technology to law enforcement agencies. Hopefully it will have the same effect here. If Amazon is using its power to enable the censorship regimes of authoritarian governments, we need to know. Amazon is free to make its own choices about what it takes down and leaves up — but it shouldn’t be making those choices in the dark.