A Chicago woman’s recent search on Amazon.com for books for teenaged girls turned up scores of pornographic books. And now -- more than two weeks after she first alerted Amazon to the problem – the books have still not been taken down, the Unit Five Investigative Team has found.
It was November 26th – Cyber Monday – when Martha Welter logged on to Amazon to shop for books for her four grandchildren for Christmas. She’s a frequent Amazon shopper and has kept up a tradition of giving books to her grandkids. “For some reason I’m always able to find books that they really like,” she says.
Welter found a book for her eight-year-old granddaughter, then her ten-year-old grandson. She then set out to find a new book for her 12-year-old granddaughter.
Starting at the Amazon.com home page, she refined her search from “All” items to just “Books”. Then she typed “teen” in the search box, and clicked on one of the auto-fill terms that popped up: “Teen books for girls.” Then – because she wanted to choose a recently-published book, Welter clicked on “New Releases – Last 30 days” in the left-hand column.
“I go through the first page, and that’s fine,” she says. She finds such books as "Throwing Like a Girl,” and “Pretty Little Liars.”
“And I go to the second page, and there I find adult picture books,” Welter says. “Adult, pornographic picture books. I can’t even say the name of them.”
Most of the titles can’t be mentioned here, either. Some of the milder are “Sexy College Girl Enjoying Herself,” “Hot Asian Girl,” and “Wild Beach Night.” Most are listed on the Amazon site as “adult picture books” – each with a banner over a suggestive photo saying “Look Inside!” Inside each “picture book” are more photos of women, along with an offer to download the entire picture book onto a digital device for a small cost – or borrow for free.
And it’s not just a few books. In the total of 140 books featured on Amazon as “teen books for girls” released in the past thirty days, Unit Five counted 91 graphic adult picture books – nearly two-thirds of all the search results.
“I was speechless,” Welter says. “I just could not believe that this was happening. So right away I’m on the phone to [Amazon] customer service.” She says Amazon representatives promised to follow up on her complaint.
“I wait until three days have gone by,” says Welter. “Those books are still there. I kept on e-mailing.”
And on Friday, four days after Welter first alerted Amazon to the search results, she got an e-mail from the customer service department, which read, in part:
From your message, I understand that you have seen some Pornographic books in recent releases of books for teen girls.
I appreciate you taking the time to share your opinions about website information.
We introduced this feature so that individuals using our web search feature would be presented with the opportunity to discover related items of interest.
I’ve passed your message on to the appropriate people in our company.
“I don’t think anyone I was corresponding with actually went and did this search to see what I was finding,” Welter says. She eventually wrote to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and a few days later she got a reply from a representative in Amazon’s Executive Customer Relations department.
“She told me I was searching wrong,” Welter says.
In part, the woman told her:
The adult themed books you saw were a result of you clicking on “Last 30 Days” which moved you outside of your current search results. To see the newest titles within your current search results, you can use the “Sort by” feature which is in the upper right hand corner of your search results page.
“So I did that, and they still popped up,” says Welter. Unit Five followed the same directions spelled out by the Amazon representative, and still found the adult books.
Welter wrote back to the representative to let her know the adult books still appeared. She has not heard back – and more than two weeks later the books are still there.
“What concerns me about this is that young people can go on Amazon.com – you don’t have to prove that you’re 18,” says Welter. “They can’t go in an adult book store. They should not be able to find this stuff so easily online.”
So how is it happening? Unit Five found that the books are being uploaded through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service, which Amazon advertises online as “the fast and easy way to self-publish your books for sale in the Kindle Store.” Amazon even offers a video tutorial on how to upload a book and list it on Amazon’s website.
And these days it’s hard for any company to curate what is posted to its site, according to Howard Tullman, president of Tribeca/Flashpoint Media Arts Academy in Chicago, and an expert on web-based media throughout the internet. “”It’s totally the Wild West,” he says. “Anything goes; anything can be published. The truth is, the volume of everything that is going on the web is beyond human capabilities to edit or review.”
Amazon does issue “Content Guidelines” for what it allows to be published. “We don’t accept pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts,” the guidelines say. “What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect.” Amazon adds that “we reserve the right to make judgments about whether content is appropriate and to choose not to offer it. We may also terminate your participation in the KDP program if you don’t adhere to these content guidelines.”
Unit Five repeatedly contacted Amazon.com by phone and e-mail about Welter’s search results and Unit Five’s findings, but so far Amazon has not responded.
Welter says she would describe Amazon’s attitude towards her complaint as “dismissive.” “No one that I had contact with seemed to have any concern that this was happening,” she says.
But she is still hoping to hear from the company. “I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know where else to go with it,” says Welter. “I would hope that somehow they would get the message and somebody would actually look at this. I can’t imagine that they would be doing this intentionally.”