Offensive products on Amazon: It’s too easy to blame the platform

Offensive goods listed on Amazon

Offensive goods listed on Amazon

I was on Sky News over the weekend, talking about the channel’s discovery that Amazon has continued to profit from highly offensive goods sold via third-party sellers. The goods in question were very much like the “Keep calm and hit her” t-shirts that were first highlighted in 2013, except here the violent slogans were printed on coffee mugs instead of fabric. (Following the Sky News story, the mugs were de-listed.)

My quote in the news package was tiny, as usual, so I figured I’d flesh out what I was trying to say: The Amazon Marketplace is convenient, well-priced and increasingly popular precisely because it makes sellers responsible for their own listings. If Amazon had to pay humans to vet every single listing before it went live, the whole platform would probably slow down, become more expensive and lose its edge. That seems like a disproportionate, anti-technological response to the problem — not to mention one that would hurt consumer choice.

There seems to be scope for Amazon to take its retroactive responsibilities more seriously — not just waiting for journalists to spot stuff, but perhaps investing in better OCR to spot potentially offensive words in images, while also levying fines on badly behaved sellers — i.e., intercepting their earnings and giving the money to charity. However, it feels too easy to always pick on the platform (whether its the Marketplace for offensive listings, Twitter for offensive tweets or Google for offensive search results), rather than pushing for better ways to hold individuals accountable for their online behaviour.

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