An influential Jewish organization issued a report this week accusing leading online book sellers, Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com, of selling hate books in Germany, a violation of that country’s laws.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center accused both companies of selling a number of books that are banned in Germany under that country’s strict anti-propaganda laws.
Among the titles the center said its researchers ordered and received from the two companies were Adolph Hitler’s infamous “Mein Kampf” and the “Turner Diaries,” a virulently anti-Semitic, white supremacist book that Timothy McVeigh was said to have read repeatedly prior to blowing up the Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
Abraham Cooper, the Los Angeles-based center’s associate dean, wrote letters on July 23 outlining the issue to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Thomas Middlehof, the CEO of German publishing giant Bertelsmann. Bertelsmann is a 50 percent stakeholder in barnesandnoble.com.
Cooper also wrote a letter to the German Justice Minister. In a statement Monday, the center said that it had received confirmation that the ministry was investigating the allegations against the two companies.
Spokespeople for Amazon and barnesandnoble.com were unavailable for comment Tuesday.
Monday, an Amazon spokeswoman told the New York Times that the company viewed the issue as though a German were on vacation in the U.S. and walked in and bought the disputed books in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore.
Cyberspace Laws and National Borders
The controversy does illustrate the ambiguities of cyberspace commerce and applicable national laws. In this case, what’s illegal in Germany is perfectly legal in the United States and elsewhere.
Germany’s laws prohibiting the sale of hate literature is one of the strongest on the books. Gary Lauck, an American publisher of white supremacist literature, was jailed for four years in 1995 after he was convicted of selling virulent literature in Germany.
Cooper reminded Bezos and Middlehof of Lauck’s arrest and conviction, presumably to remind them that Germany takes the law very seriously.
The prevailing feeling in the legal profession is that a company which sells its products in any given country is obligated to abide by that country’s laws. The Amazon spokeswoman did say that the company’s German site would not sell the contested literature.