Recently, Rep. Jim Jordan released documents revealing that members of the White House had contacted Amazon regarding efforts to curb “propaganda and misinformation and disinformation,” specifically as it relates to vaccines. Since then, the White House has received an onslaught of criticism for pressuring a private company to change policy. Though people have every right to criticize Amazon for policy changes, the ultimate responsibility lies with the White House and the staffers who used their power to influence Amazon’s policy decisions as well as the state’s authority over companies derived from antitrust regulators.

According to the documents, on March 2, 2021, a White House official reached out to Amazon inquiring about the presence of “disinformation” on their website. The assertion was based on key term searches and an examination of the content these searches revealed. According to the staffer, the results were “concerning,” and he stated he’d like to discuss it further with the company. Amazon, to their credit, declined a “manual intervention” that would have prevented users from accessing the content immediately.

Only on March 9, after a meeting with White House staff, did Amazon decide to enable “Do Not Promote” for books that questioned the effectiveness of vaccines, which limits the content’s reach. Amazon later reported that they felt “pressure” from the White House to take such action. Despite this, only one of the nine books examined by Amazon was removed.

It’s easy for commentators to blame Amazon for adhering to the White House’s wishes, but when all is said and done, Amazon’s crackdown on misinformation is hardly an example of a mass book ban. Amazon has even stated that it believes that all books should be widely available, even those that “some customers may find objectionable.” For example, Amazon removed Mein Kampf from their store after years of pressure from various groups but brought back some later editions of the book shortly after. Explaining their decision, Amazon stated, “As a bookseller, we provide customers with access to a variety of viewpoints, including titles that serve an important educational role in understanding and preventing antisemitism.”

The documents released by Rep. Jim Jordan make it clear that it was not Amazon’s idea to limit the visibility of certain books. In fact, Amazon’s statements on other highly controversial books clearly indicate that the company believes even the most objectionable books should remain available.

A key component of consumer welfare is the ability to access a wide array of products. Only through consumer choice maximization can the best products be made available to customers who desire them. Every consumer is different and seeks out different products and services to maximize their satisfaction. This is especially true when it comes to information. Open access to various viewpoints is a key component of consumer choice. Amazon has clearly wished to uphold this principle, while certain members of the government have not. 

At the same time, a business has a fiduciary duty to its shareholders, and decisions that could risk putting the company in the ire of the federal government are not made lightly. Decisions that could threaten the company’s financial success are bound to upset shareholders, giving Amazon added pressure when the federal government makes requests.

The blame for Amazon’s decision to suppress books can be laid squarely at the feet of the White House staffers who launched the initial inquiry. Amazon has provided ample evidence for its personal views on censorship and content moderation. It is clear why private companies comply with government requests; what is not clear is why government employees are making these requests in the first place.

Isaac Schick is with the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit education and research organization. For more information about the Institute, visit www.TheAmericanConsumer.Org or follow us on X @ConsumerPal