Deshelving hateful, misleading, and other harmful books: Bol(d) transparency?

Deshelving hateful, misleading, and other harmful books: Bol(d) transparency?

Dutch internet marketplace Bol.com has decided to stop selling books containing hate messages. It could take on a pioneering role and be transparent on how it decides what books come off the shelves.

In the aftermath of the commotion about controversial books, the Dutch internet marketplace Bol.com has decided to take certain books off its ‘shelves’ that contain ‘hate messages, such as anti-Semitism and homophobia’. Bol.com had previously decided to temporarily remove such books from its digital shelves pending external expertise about whether the books should be sold on the platform or not. This month, certain books have not returned to the shelves. Some say that this action amounts to censorship, others say it is good that Bol.com is demonstrating social responsibility towards the content of the books that it sells. Both judgements are a bit hasty since we do not know precisely what Bol.com has removed from the shelves. In my view, the platform now has an opportunity to develop a transparent and genuinely responsive mechanism to decide whether (digital) books should be ‘deshelved’. I link this possibility to the lack of transparency in the content moderation of other internet platforms.

Good moderation, good business

Content moderation is no bad thing. For example, Facebook, Twitter, and Google can decide what is shown on their platforms. They influence what content is recommended, decide what is shown first or even what is removed from its platform. Of course, these internet giants take legislation, including local legislation, into consideration. These platforms, however, prohibit more content than they are required by law. Platforms also prohibit content they deem ‘bad for business’, and in doing so they generally offer a digital community where people wish to share their viewpoints, ideas and photographs. Content moderation is thus just good business: it would be unfounded and unwise to argue otherwise. Of course, these companies, being private parties, are allowed to decide for themselves what they permit on their platforms. Only under strict circumstances does the State have the positive obligation to intervene in the conduct of private businesses in order to safeguard freedom of expression in the conduct of private parties. However, we are still a long way from such State interference. It is important to note that the problem is not content moderation per se, but how content moderation is carried out. Inconsistent, unclear, and non-transparent enforcement of content moderation raises questions about why some content is removed while other – similar – content is not.

Bookseller responsibility

Bol.com is different to these internet giants. It does not only allow third parties to offer commodities on their marketplace, it also sells books (among other things) as a vendor. The commodities that are sold by Bol.com are recognisable by the tag ‘Sold by bol.com’. Under Dutch law, Bol.com may, as a seller, be responsible for illegal content of these books. Article 137e of the Dutch penal code, for example, criminalises dissemination of group defamation. The Public Prosecution Service in the Netherlands is currently investigating Bol.com for selling the anti-Semitic children’s book The Poisonous Mushroom by Nazi leader Julius Streicher. At the same time, Bol.com is under pressure from advocacy groups and politicians to ‘deshelve’ such books. While Bol.com at first refused to comply, it did add a disclaimer to these books, warning about harmful content.

Fear of prosecution

Selling books that could violate the Dutch penal code is not good for business. Bol.com saw itself forced to deshelve books while leaving other books on the shelves. A disclaimer accompanies the books that are still on sale after review. The disclaimer reads that Bol.com consulted ‘several specialised parties, including the government’ and decided to not deshelve the book ‘because it has now been provided with additional information by specialised parties’. Of course, such disclaimers contribute to a better understanding of why Bol.com keeps selling some books. However, it does not offer much information about the criteria Bol.com and its experts use to decide which books are deshelved.

Bold transparency, good democracy

In a world of internet platforms hiding how they decide what can and cannot be shared, Bol.com could take on a pioneering role in providing an insight into they decide which books must be taken off the shelves. Bold transparency may be terrifying for Bol.com since by doing so, it makes itself vulnerable to criticism. Why is this book taken down while another book with similar content remains available? However, the only way Bol.com can genuinely reconcile shielding us from ‘deception, discrimination or hateful content’ and ‘handle freedom of expression with care’ is by offering a chance to discuss and debate on what books can and cannot be purchased. I even hope that Members of Parliament in the Netherlands will put questions to the Minister of Justice and Security on books Bol.com has ‘deshelved’ as a precaution, and whether the law should be amended to shield booksellers from prosecution for the books they offer.


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