Amazon on Monday moved to restrict articles and search results related to LGBTQ people and issues on its website in the United Arab Emirates after receiving pressure from the UAE government, company documents revealed by the New York Times were viewed.
The government of the Emirates gave Amazon to comply by Friday under threat of penalties, the documents show. It was not clear what those penalties would look like. Homosexuality is criminalized in the Emirates and punished with fines and imprisonment. according to to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Amazon’s restrictions on products in the Emirates are an indication of the compromises tech companies are willing to make to operate in restrictive countries, even if they profess to be adamant about free speech in their own country. Netflix pulled shows in Saudi Arabia and censored scenes in Vietnam, apple stored customer data on Chinese servers despite privacy concerns and Google AWAY an app for a Russian opposition leader last year after he faced prosecution there.
After hearing from the Emirates, Amazon had its restricted products team take steps to remove individual product listings, and a team that manages the company’s search capabilities hid results for more than 150 keywords, the documents show.
The targeted search terms were widely diversified. Some were broad, such as “lgbtq,” “pride,” and “closed gay,” while others indicated intentional product searches, including “transgender flag,” “queer brooch,” “lesbian chest binder,” and “lgbtq iPhone case.” “. All of these terms returned “no results” when The Times attempted queries on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Several specific book titles have been blocked, including Nagata Kabi’s My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness; Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe; and Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. All are available in print and digital form on Amazon’s website in the United States. (Ms. Gay is a regular contributor to The Times.)
“As a company, we remain committed to diversity, equity and inclusion and believe that the rights of LGBTQ+ people must be protected,” Nicole Pampe, a spokeswoman for Amazon, said in a statement. “With Amazon businesses around the world, we must also comply with the local laws and regulations of the countries in which we operate.”
The Emirati embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
Amazon entered the Emirates in 2017 when it spent $580 million to acquire Souq.com, a Dubai-based e-commerce site known as the Amazon of the Middle East. Two years later, the Amazon.ae website was rebranded and added products offered by Amazon’s US stores. It has announced plans to open a new cluster of cloud computing data centers in the Emirates this year.
Over the weekend, the Pride March in Amazon’s hometown of Seattle highlighted the challenge faced by a global company trying to juggle many ingredients. While Amazon celebrates Pride at many of its facilities, offers benefits to same-sex partners, and promotes LGBTQ films on its website, the company stopped sponsoring Seattle Pride after the parade organizers announced it rejected corporate support partly due to financial donations from Amazon to politicians opposed to LGBTQ rights.
The company has said it will make political donations, although it does not support every position held by the individuals or organizations.
At the parade, transgender employees marched under the banner of No Hate at Amazon, a group that had garnered more than 600 employee signatures on a petition pressuring Amazon to remove books from its US website from which the Workers said they were anti-transgender and in violation of the company’s ban on hate speech.
Amazon has typically avoided removing sensitive or controversial books. “As a bookseller, we believe it is important to provide access to the written word, including content that may be considered offensive,” the policy reads.
The company recently adjusted its guidelines to allow more discretion in removing “objectionable” content, and said last year that it would remove books that treated transgender and other sexual identities as mental illness.
The Emirates is one of several countries where Amazon has had to deal with censorship demands.
Reuters reported last year that Amazon, under pressure from the Chinese government, removed all customer ratings and comments for a book of speeches and writings by President Xi Jinping. The company recently shut down its Kindle store in China, although it denied censorship concerns were the reason. Amazon’s cloud computing division made it harder to evade censorship in China and Russia in the past because it prohibited workarounds that customers had used.