Last week the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, a group that monitors anti-Semitism, pointed out to Germany's minister of justice that customers of Barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com were able to circumvent laws prohibiting the sale of certain books in Germany. Since then, Barnesandnoble.com has stopped shipping such titles as Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" and "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" to the nation, which has strict laws against the dissemination of materials that incite racial hatred. But while Barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com are two of the Internet's largest booksellers, they're certainly not the first to tackle this issue.
"We already have a system in place to monitor this problem. We adhere to the laws of the country where we ship," says Books.com marketing director Jack Bashian. The Cleveland company checks each order to see if the ISBN (or product code number) for an ordered book is kosher in the country to which the customer has asked to have it shipped. If it's a prohibited title, the book doesn't fly. This rule applies to "Mein Kampf," but also to Kitty Kelley's 1997 exposi of the British monarchy, "The Royals," which is banned as libelous in the U.K.
Powell's Books of Portland, Ore., takes a different approach. "We have a self-policing policy," Powell's marketing director, Kanth Gopalpur, told Salon Books. "We don't sell books that instruct people on how they can cause physical harm to others, such as 'The Anarchist Cookbook' or the 'Hit Man' book."
But "hate books" have a little more Lebensraum on Powell's shelves. "Someone told me last week that we shipped a bunch of books to Germany glorifying the SS," Gopalpur said. So while German extremists can't buy their books from the Internet's biggest vendors, they can find them if they dig a little deeper.
Over the last year, two other controversial books have run into difficulties with online sales. The U.S.-published "The Committee: Political Assassination in Ireland" by Sean McPhilemy was banished from Amazon.co.uk's catalog. The book, which had been one of the site's bestsellers in Britain, alleges that Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Irish Protestant David Trimble was a member of a secret group behind terrorist activities against Irish Catholics. (Trimble is suing Amazon.co.uk for $100 million, and his lawyers have sent threatening letters to Barnesandnoble.com, which continues to sell the book). Amazon.co.uk also dropped "A Piece of Blue Sky," a book that criticizes the Church of Scientology, when an English court ruled that it was libelous.