Online booksellers defend right to sell banned books

Online booksellers have defended their right to sell race-hate literature to countries in which it is banned, after a Los Angeles based anti-Nazi organisation called for a halt to the sale of books such as Mein Kampf in Germany.

Under German law, the distribution of literature believed to promote racial hatred is prohibited. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Los Angeles-based organisation that monitors anti-Semitism, became enraged when it discovered that German citizens can directly order banned material from online booksellers such as and and called for a block on such sales.

A representative of Amazon in the UK believes all the company can do is abide by US law. "This is about freedom of speech in the US," she says. "It may be illegal to sell such books in Germany, but this doesn't relate to us."

This spokesperson was also keen to point out that this is not the only way to contravene a country's censorship law. "The fact that some books are illegal in Germany wouldn't stop a German tourist going and buying a banned book in another country and taking it home with them."

This argument doesn't quite hold water however, unless Amazon is advocating breaking the law. It is illegal for a prohibited publication to be brought through customs by a German citizen and any such books will always be confiscated. "It is illegal to posses certain publications in Germany but it is not illegal to send something if it is not illegal in the country of origin," explained a representative from the German embassy in London. "There is also the practical problem that, just as in the UK, mail is protected and cannot normally opened and checked."

David Kerr, director of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) -- the UK's independent Internet watchdog -- says that although this is not an issue of Internet censorship, it may indicate we are moving closer to international regulation of the Internet. "The European Union has done a lot of work in this area, trying to organise some co-ordination of international self-regulation," he said.

The UK last week witnessed a test case in which a pornography peddler was prosecuted under the UK Obscene Publications Act, although the servers hosting his site were based in the US. This is another hint of the international perspective individual governments are struggling to apply to governance of the Web.

Within the readers' review section of the Amazon site in both the US and the UK, there are a number of comments concerning books such as Mein Kampf that advocate racist and Nazi views. Amazon encourages readers to abide by certain guidelines but only considers changing a contribution when there has been a complaint from a reader or an author.

Freedom of speech is enshrined in the US Constitution under the First Amendment. In the UK however, there is no specific Freedom of Speech Act and indeed the legal framework explicity allows for controls on the publication of material that it is considered might incite racial hatred.