Amazon moved to restrict items and search results related to LGBTQ+ people and issues on its website in the United Arab Emirates on Monday after receiving pressure from the government there, according to company documents viewed by The New York Times.
The Emirati government gave Amazon until Friday to comply under threat of penalties, the documents show. It was not clear what those penalties would be. Homosexuality is criminalized in the Emirates, punishable by fines and imprisonment, according to the State Department.
Amazon’s restrictions on products in the Emirates are indicative of the compromises that tech companies are willing to make to operate in restrictive countries, even when professing to be adamant about free expression in their own country. Netflix has pulled shows in Saudi Arabia and censored scenes in Vietnam, Apple has stored customer data on Chinese servers despite privacy concerns, and Google removed an app for a Russian opposition leader last year after facing a threat of 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 abilities hid the results for more than 150 keywords, the documents show.
The targeted search terms ranged widely. Some were broad, such as “lgbtq,” “pride” and “closeted gay,” while others indicated intentional product searches, including “transgender flag,” “queer brooch,” “chest binder for lesbians” and “lgbtq iphone case.” All of those terms returned “no results” when The New York Times tried queries 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.” All are available in print and digital formats on Amazon’s website in the United States. (Gay is a frequent contributor to The New York Times.)
“As a company, we remain committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, and we believe that the rights of LGBTQ+ people must be protected,” Nicole Pampe, an Amazon spokesperson, said in a statement. “With Amazon stores 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, it rebranded the site Amazon.ae, adding products offered from Amazon’s U.S. 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, Seattle, showed the challenge presented to a global company that is trying to juggle many constituents.
While Amazon celebrates Pride in many of its operations, provides benefits to same-sex partners and promotes LGBTQ+ films on its website, the company was no longer a sponsor of Seattle Pride after parade organizers said they had rejected the corporate support in part 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 organization may take.
At the parade, transgender employees marched under the banner of No Hate at Amazon, a group that had gotten more than 600 employee signatures on a petition pressuring Amazon to remove books on its U.S. website that the workers said were anti-transgender and violated the company’s prohibition on hate speech.
Amazon has typically avoided removing sensitive or controversial books. “As a bookseller, we believe that providing access to the written word is important, including content that may be considered objectionable,” its policy states.
The company did recently adapt its policies to allow more discretion to remove “offensive” content, and said last year that it would take down books that treated transgender and other sexual identities as a mental illness.
The Emirates is one of several countries where Amazon has had to deal with censorship demands.
Reuters reported last year that under pressure from the Chinese government, Amazon removed all customer ratings 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 that censorship concerns were the reason. Amazon’s cloud computing division made it harder to evade censors in China and Russia in the past because it prohibited workarounds that customers had been using.