Amazon moved Monday to restrict items and search results related to LGBTQ people and issues on its website in the United Arab Emirates after government pressure there, according to company documents reviewed by The New York Times.
The documents show that the Emirates government has given Amazon until Friday to comply under the threat of sanctions. Homosexuality is criminalized in the Emirates, punishable by fines and jail time, the foreign ministry said. It was not clear what those penalties would be.
Amazon’s restrictions on products in the Emirates indicate the compromises tech companies are willing to make to operate in restrictive countries, even as they claim to be adamant about free speech in their own countries. Netflix has pulled shows in Saudi Arabia and censored scenes in Vietnam; Apple has stored customer data on Chinese servers despite privacy concerns. Google last year removed an app for a Russian opposition leader after he was threatened with 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 the results for more than 150 keywords, the documents show.
The targeted search terms varied widely. Some were broad, such as “LGBTQ,” “pride,” and “closeted gay,” while others indicated intentional product searches, including “transgender flag,” “queer brooch,” “lesbian chest folder,” and “LGBTQ iphone case.” All those terms yielded “no results” when The Times attempted questions on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Several specific book titles were blocked, including “My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness” by Nagata Kabi; “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe, and Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminist.” (Mrs. Gay is a regular contributor to The Times.) they are all available in print and digital formats on Amazon’s website in the United States.
“As a company, we remain committed to diversity, equality, and inclusion, and we believe the rights of LGBTQ+ people should be protected,” Nicole Pampe, an Amazon spokeswoman, said in a statement. “With Amazon stores around the world, we also need to comply with the local laws and regulations of the countries in which we operate.”
The Emirates 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, it changed the site’s name to Amazon. Ae and added products offered by Amazon’s US operations. It has announced plans to open a new cluster of cloud computing data centers in the Emirates this year.
Over the weekend, the Pride parade in Amazon’s hometown of Seattle showcased the challenge presented to a global company trying to juggle many voters. While Amazon celebrates Pride in many of its activities, offers benefits to same-sex partners, and promotes LGBTQ movies on its website, the company was no longer a sponsor of Seattle Pride after the parade organizers said they had partially rejected the corporate support. Because of Amazon’s financial donations to politicians who oppose LGBTQ rights.
The company has said it will make political donations even if it does not support every position the people or organizations can take.
During the parade, transgender workers marched under the banner of No Hate at Amazon, a group that had received more than 600 employee signatures for a petition that pressured Amazon to remove books from its US website that workers said were anti -were transgender and violated company rules. Prohibition of 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 changed its policy to allow for more discretion when removing “offensive” content, saying last year it would remove books that treat transgender and other sexual identities as a mental illness.
The Emirates is one of the many countries where Amazon has faced censorship demands.
Reuters reported last year that under pressure from the Chinese government, Amazon had removed all customer reviews and comments for a book of President Xi Jinping’s speeches and writings. The company recently closed its Kindle store in China, though it denied censorship was the reason. Amazon’s cloud computing division has made it more difficult to circumvent censors in China and Russia in the past because it banned the workarounds customers were using.