Politics & Policy

The Washington Post Should Respond to Amazon’s Book Banning

The Washington Post Company building in Washington, D.C., 2012 (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Post editors ought to assert their editorial independence

Amazon, the world’s largest bookseller, whose owner is also the owner of the Washington Post, decided on Wednesday to ban a gun book from being published by its self-publishing platform and sold on its website.

Amazon said on Thursday that The Liberator Code Book: An Exercise in Free Speech and The Liberator: An .STL File Published as a Book (both re-creations of the same gun-design file, but posted by different authors and with different forewords) violated one of their content guidelines. The company refused to identify which guideline the book violated or elaborate any further on the decision. It refused to say if it plans to ban other potentially controversial books.

Since Amazon refused to explain its ban on the publication, it’s impossible to know for sure what their thinking is. That’s likely the intent of their obfuscation. However, it strains credulity to think that the political controversy around the 3D-printed Liberator wasn’t at the heart of their decision.

What does the Washington Post’s editorial board think of Amazon’s politically motivated censorship of a book?

A hard copy of The Liberator Code Book: An Exercise in Free Speech was obtained by the Washington Free Beacon before Amazon banned it. The book consists of raw computer code for Cody Wilson’s single-shot, mostly-3D-printed firearm, a two-page assembly guide, and a one-page editor’s note. “The purpose of this exercise is to give a physical analogy between computer code and books,” the note begins. “Preventing the publishing of code online is no different than banning a book from circulation and pulling it from the shelves of a library.”

It’s entirely possible that the Post’s editorial board believes banning this book is the right course of action. They may believe the collection of 1s and 0s printed on paper and bound into a book is too dangerous for people to be allowed to read. If so, they should say so. And they should also do what Amazon refuses to do: explain why this book is where the line should be drawn.

Amazon has long sold the world’s most controversial books. It sells Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Marx’s Communist Manifesto. It sells The Turner Diaries, by Andrew MacDonald, the white-supremacist manifesto that inspired Timothy McVeigh to carry out the Oklahoma City bombing. It sells The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, one of the most infamous anti-Semitic books in history.

Amazon has also long sold a wide variety of books with instructions on how to construct various weapons. It sells The Anarchist Cookbook. It sells The U.S. Army Improvised Munitions Handbook. It sells The U.S. Department of the Army Field Manual on Boobytraps. It sells The U.S. Army Special Forces Guide to Unconventional Warfare: Devices and Techniques for Incendiaries.

It sells these books, presumably, because it believes that the free exchange of information and the marketplace of ideas — even vile and disgusting ones — is better than trying to implement a censorship regime. At least, until now. So why has the world’s largest bookseller suddenly decided that this particular book is too controversial or dangerous to sell?

Certainly, as a private company, Amazon is free to operate its business as it sees fit. But if the editorial board of the paper that was just honored in a legitimately inspiring blockbuster starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep for publishing information the government deemed too dangerous for public consumption were to declare this book too dangerous for public consumption, that would be perplexing. Regardless, if that’s genuinely how the editorial board feels, they should say so. Then they should list all the other books they think should be banned as well, and why.

If the editorial board doesn’t approve of Amazon’s actions, they should say that. Then they should explain why.

If that same editorial board chooses to remain completely silent on their sister company’s decision, that would raise a lot of questions about how independent the Post actually is.

Now is the time to eliminate any doubt.

This op-ed was submitted for publication at the Washington Post but the paper declined to publish it.

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