Elizabeth Warren Threatens Amazon For Selling Books Containing Misinformation; Perhaps Forgetting The 1st Amendment
from the kinda-matters dept
We’re going to have to do this again up front because I know how this is going to go over among some: even if you think Amazon is the root of all evil, and Senator Elizabeth Warren truly is the greatest Senator in the last century, that does not mean that she gets to ignore the Constitution. We had this issue earlier this year when Warren threatened to punish Amazon for its constitutionally protected speech, and now she’s going even further. She has sent a letter to new Amazon CEO Andy Jassy to complain about the fact that there are some books on Amazon that have dangerous mis- and disinformation about COVID-19 and various treatments and vaccines. And, yes, I recognize just as well as you do how dangerous that kind of mis- and disinformation can be. But, whether you like it or not, that mis- and disinformation is almost certainly protected by the 1st Amendment. And Warren ignores all that and implies that Amazon hosting this material is potentially “unlawful.” It’s not and threatening Amazon for carrying it is a huge 1st Amendment issue.
This pattern and practice of misbehavior suggests that Amazon is either unwilling or unable to modify its business practices to prevent the spread of falsehoods or the sale of inappropriate products?an unethical, unacceptable, and potentially unlawful course of action from one of the nation?s largest retailers.
I mean, the Bantam Books case from 1963 is still good law, and presents a very similar situation, involving government officials strongly implying to a book distributor that certain books should not be distributed. The Court found that to be unconstitutional (even without a direct threat). In this case, Warren’s letter even suggests illegality, which goes further than what happened in Bantam Books. In Bantam Books, the Court found that even though the government officials had no law enforcement capability, they were still clearly intimidating the distributor:
In holding that the activities disclosed on this record are constitutionally proscribed, we do not mean to suggest that private consultation between law enforcement officers and distributors prior to the institution of a judicial proceeding can never be constitutionally permissible. We do not hold that law enforcement officers must renounce all informal contacts with persons suspected of violating valid laws prohibiting obscenity. Where such consultation is genuinely undertaken with the purpose of aiding the distributor to comply with such laws and avoid prosecution under them, it need not retard the full enjoyment of First Amendment freedoms. But that is not this case. The appellees are not law enforcement officers; they do not pretend that they are qualified to give or that they attempt to give distributors only fair legal advice. Their conduct as disclosed by this record shows plainly that they went for beyond advising the distributors of their legal rights and liabilities. Their operation was in fact a scheme of state censorship effectuated by extra-legal sanctions; they acted as an agency not to advise but to suppress.
That… sounds pretty much like what Warren did here with this letter. From her letter, which even calls out specific books she doesn’t like:
Alarmingly, Amazon?the nation?s leading online retailer?and the company?s search algorithms appear to contribute to the spread of COVID-19 misinformation. During the week of August 22, 2021, my staff conducted sample searches on Amazon.com of pandemic-related terms such as ?COVID-19,? ?COVID,? ?vaccine,? ?COVID 19 vaccine,? and ?pandemic.? The top results consistently included highly-ranked and favorably-tagged books based on falsehoods about COVID-19 vaccines and cures.
When staff searched for terms ?COVID-19? and ?vaccine,? the first result, presented prominently in the top left corner of the screen, was a book by Joseph Mercola and Ronnie Cummins called ?The Truth About COVID-19: Exposing the Great Reset, Lockdowns, Vaccine Passports, and the New Normal.? Dr. Mercola has been described as ?the most influential spreader of coronavirus misinformation online.?11 Not only was this book the top result when searching either ?COVID-19? or ?vaccine? in the categories of ?All Departments? and ?Books?; it was tagged as a ?Best Seller? by Amazon and the ?#1 Best Seller? in the ?Political Freedom? category.
Even if we think that Dr. Mercola is a dangerous grifter, that does not mean that the US government gets to ban his books. That’s kind of important. And then Warren “demands” that Amazon change its algorithm, raising even more 1st Amendment issues (algorithms are protected speech as well)
Given the seriousness of this issue, I ask that you perform an immediate review of Amazon?s algorithms and, within 14 days, provide both a public report on the extent to which Amazon?s algorithms are directing consumers to books and other products containing COVID19 misinformation and a plan to modify these algorithms so that they no longer do so…
Perhaps even more ridiculous is that Warren relies on WHO claims at one point in the letter:
In February 2020, the World Health Organization declared an ?infodemic? to describe the difficulty of finding reliable information about COVID19 in today?s media environment
That’s true. But in February of 2020 the WHO was also telling people that masks didn’t help and that there wasn’t evidence to support that COVID was transmitted by aerosols. In other words, even if there was an “infodemic,” the WHO itself helped contribute to it with some of its earliest claims. And that’s part of the reason why the 1st Amendment is so important. We can agree that there are grifters, scammers, idiots, and ignorant fools pushing nonsense in books, but it’s not the government’s job to censor such information. And yet that’s what Warren is doing — and doing so by threatening an intermediary is even worse.
This is important not just if you hate Amazon, hate COVID grifters, and love Elizabeth Warren. Because if you think this setup is okay, then you similarly are supporting ignorant fools in Congress who are spreading disinformation themselves (and there are a bunch of them) pressuring Amazon to drop books that present good information about COVID treatments and prevention.