Big Tech's Digital Book Burning Threatens a Free and Open Society | Opinion

John Milton's warning that "he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself" rings especially true today as we witness Amazon and other big tech companies using their enormous market power to effectively ban certain books.

Based on my own experience, I used to believe that Amazon was a great enabler of new ideas. In 2014, when I completed my autobiography Confucius Never Said, I followed the traditional book publishing route and contacted 30 literary agents who specialize in biographies. Only one agent rejected my manuscript after reading it. The other 29 declined to take my book without even reading the manuscript. Interestingly, more than 80 percent of literary agents listed on agentquery.com, including all 30 I contacted, are located in New York City. This small group of cultural gatekeepers, likely sharing similar political views, has for many years decided which books 350 million Americans will have access to.

Just when I thought I would never be able to share my family's stories and my ideas with the world, a friend introduced me to Amazon's self-publishing service. The process was free and easy to use. I uploaded my manuscript and cover design, set the price and chose the markets where I wanted to make my book available. The whole process, including online proofreading, took less than 30 minutes. Within 24 hours, millions of readers around the world could access Confucius Never Said.

A year later, the Independent Book Publishers Association bestowed Confucius Never Said with the Benjamin Franklin silver award. It was a confirmation that my family's stories are worth telling, and that there is a marketplace for my ideas. But if not for Amazon democratizing the book-publishing business and breaking up the traditional publishing industry's monopoly—and if not for accessibility to Amazon's massive marketplace—my book would never have become known to the world. I'm grateful for Amazon and I often use this experience as an illustration of how the free market knocks down barriers, powerfully equalizes ideas and defends free speech. I've self-published three more books through Amazon.com since 2014. Confucius Never Said remains my best seller, and I still receive fan mail telling me how much my family's stories meant to them.

It turned out that I joined Amazon's self-publishing business in its golden age, when the company was still committed to selling any book, regardless of its content. When Amazon was criticized for carrying books such as The Pedophile's Guide to Love and Pleasure in 2010, it stated that it was "censorship to not sell certain books."

However, it didn't take long for Amazon to forget its own words—and its commitment to free speech. In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, Amazon began quietly to remove books related to the pandemic that contained what the company deemed "misinformation."

Amazon's digital book-burning mostly went unnoticed until Alex Berenson, a former reporter for the New York Times, disclosed that Amazon banned his book, Unreported Truths about COVID-19 and Lockdowns. In his book, Berenson accused mainstream media of overstating the threat of COVID-19, and criticized the seemingly endless lockdowns. Amazon initially told Berenson that it had removed his book because it spread misinformation. However, Amazon quickly reversed the decision and claimed the ban was a mistake after an internet outcry, including a tweet from Elon Musk that called Amazon's ban "insane" and declared it was "time to break up Amazon. Monopolies are wrong!"

Amazon
Close-up of sign with logo on facade of the regional headquarters of ecommerce company Amazon in the Silicon Valley town of Sunnyvale, California, October 28, 2018. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Unfortunately, anyone who thought Amazon would stop its digital book burning after this well-publicized incident was dead wrong.

Last month, Amazon removed Ryan T. Anderson's 2018 book When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment from Amazon.com, Kindle, and Audible platforms, even though the book had been on sale at all three sites for more than three years. The company initially refused to give either Anderson or his publisher any explanation except pointing to an updated company policy, stating that it won't sell content it determines as either a "hate speech" or "inappropriate or offensive." Yet, Amazon currently carries Hitler's Mein Kampf in its marketplace. It is not clear how Amazon defines what constitutes "hate" or "inappropriate or offensive" material.

Abigail Shrier, the author of Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, noticed that Amazon removed Anderson's book in the same week the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act. If the bill passes the U.S. Senate and President Joe Biden signs it into law, "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" will become protected classes under federal civil rights law. One implication is that any biological male who identifies as female can compete in women's sports, because not treating people as their self-identified gender will be a law-breaking act of discrimination. Anderson's book argues that the law should not "accept and enforce a subjective notion of gender." Instead, he argues, we as a society need to explore "the most loving and helpful response to the condition of gender dysphoria."

This viewpoint expressed in Anderson's book has broad public support. A recent Politico survey shows that most Americans, including millennials, favor banning transgender athletes from competing in women's sports. However, the opposite position is the new orthodoxy of the Democratic Party. Since that party is in control of all three branches of the U.S. government, it seems that Amazon used its market power to prevent the American public from accessing ideas that challenge the orthodoxy of the ruling party.

Amazon confirmed its motive in a letter responding to several Republican senators' inquiries about the removal of Anderson's book, explaining that it wouldn't "sell books that frame LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness." Anderson challenged Amazon on Twitter to "please quote the passage where I 'call them mentally ill.' You can't quote that passage because it doesn't exist." Amazon never responded.

Some suggest Anderson find a different platform for his book. But that isn't as easy it sounds. Amazon is known as "Earth's Biggest Bookstore," and is responsible for more than more than half of all U.S. book sales. Because of Amazon's enormous market power, few literary agents and publishers will want to publish a book that Amazon won't sell. They will censor book proposals based on Amazon's ideological guidelines. The implication is that some books will never get published, and some voices and ideas will be shut out of the public square forever.

What's even worse is that Amazon isn't the only big tech company that engages in smokeless digital book-burning. When the woke mob canceled six of Dr. Seuss's books earlier this month, eBay immediately prevented these books' resale from its marketplace. Author and cultural critic Thomas Chatterton Williams expressed his concern on Twitter: "For the people saying that you'll be able to find copies of these books at libraries or garage sales. Yes, perhaps. But writers do not support themselves like that. They need markets. And so they will learn to anticipate the corporate power and the result is self-censorship."

What Amazon and eBay are doing is one of the biggest threats to our free and open society. Throughout history, every nation that started burning books ended in tyranny. If we don't stop big tech's digital book-burning, we may someday find ourselves living in a totalitarian state.

Helen Raleigh, CFA, is an American entrepreneur, writer and speaker. Helen is the author of Backlash: How China's Aggression Has Backfired and Confucius Never Said. Follow her on Twitter: @HRaleighspeaks and visit her website: www.helenraleighspeaks.com.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.