As one of the largest online retailers within today’s market, you would expect that Amazon has a rigorous screening system to protect vulnerable users from acquiring prohibited materials. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Amazon suggest that in fact, the parent or guardian of the account holder (in instances where the account owner is under the age of eighteen) is responsible for all purchases made from the account. As such, not only can minors use Amazon’s services with little in the means of age-authentication, they are not deemed responsible for their purchases: meaning that Amazon manages to dodge legal responsibility. This poses difficult questions in terms of Amazons obligation to their users, and their responsibility to ensure safe and legal working practices. Furthermore, in today’s age of technology, questions surrounding the accessibility of so called ‘erotic literature’ and its arguably pornographic content – and whether it should legally be classified as a restricted product are ongoing.
Age restricted products such as DVD’s, CD’s, Console and Computer Games are covered under the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006, Section 21. Erotica and Romance titles containing sexually explicit material are not covered. With ongoing controversy surrounding the types of content that children and young adults are exposed to within advertisements and as they browse the web, when analysing Amazon’s age restriction policy, the notion of ‘age restricted’ literature in the digital age presents some interesting challenges. Where do the boundaries between appropriate for consumption by those who are under-age and unnecessary censorship lie? In this context, Amazon’s policy is ethically questionable at best. Furthermore, the notion of minors having the ability to place orders under the presumed authorisation of their parents, indicates that there is an issue emerging: posing the question of where in fact does ultimate responsibility lie?
With the rise of digital media, the challenges presented to online retailers such as Amazon have grown. With the market for digital publishing blooming (over 47,879,382 eBooks were purchased in 2015), amounting to in excess of £381.5m worth of sales from ‘The Big Five’ publishers alone. In the wake of the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, the market for erotic fiction has expanded significantly, with erotic fiction now selling well alongside more mainstream fiction. In November 2015, an estimated 6245 novels, novellas and other works listed under the category of Romance were sold daily. As such, is it time we considered the impact of literature classified by authors and publishers as erotica or adult literature, and the way in which age restriction is enforced?
With all types of restricted product, the duty remains with the retailer to ensure that these products do not fall into the hands of those who are underage. The appropriate age restrictions for traditional published works has been argued for some time now: with the majority of retailers stocking potentially sensitive material at height, and policing its sale. Whilst erotic novels themselves are not age restricted, other types of pornographic material (such as magazines frequently found on news agents top-shelves) are covered by the terms specified within the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 or the Obscene Publications Acts (OPA) 1959; however, general good practice determines that these erotic titles are not sold to minors. It is not in the best interests of retailers to enable young readers to purchase or interact with pornographic material. The damage to their reputations and professional standings this could have, is significant. Amazon’s policy is significantly less responsive than that of other providers: your local supermarket certainly has a more active age-restriction policy! Leaving questions as to Amazon’s ethical sense of responsibility.
With many children, teens, or young adult readers now in possession of an eReader, or with access to eReading applications (such as the Kindle App.) and Amazon now selling Kindles aimed specifically at children, that have features aimed at preventing access to ‘inappropriate content’. It is clear that Amazon are attempting to mitigate the risks posed by such a loose age restriction policy. However, whilst these advances have made significant progress towards the safeguarding of young children from the recognised dangers of the net, the limited functionality that these devices present for older children mean that the likelihood of an upgrade to a standard eReading device increases. Without the protection provided by a specially designed tablet, the likelihood of them encountering inappropriate content increases. Amazon states that:
‘Certain items available on Amazon.co.uk are age restricted. By placing an order for one of these items you are declaring that you are 18 years of age or over. These items must be used responsibly and appropriately.
Delivery of age restricted items will require the signature of the recipient at the delivery address. Identification may be required in order to verify the age of the recipient. Delivery to a nominated neighbour or safe location isn’t available for these items.’
It is clear that there is a lack of clarity in terms of the practical application of the law in terms of the restriction of pornographic content in erotic fiction and other titles classified as romance. The confusion only grows, when eReaders are communal and orders are placed from a parent or guardian’s account. When creating an Amazon account, the terms and conditions also state that:
‘We do not sell products for purchase by children. We sell children’s products for purchase by adults. If you are under 18 you may use the Amazon Services only with the involvement of a parent or guardian’.
As such, in the case of erotica and romance fiction, alongside other legally age restricted products, Amazon passes responsibility for purchases made using the account onto the legal guardian of the account user.
Morally, the refusal of Amazon to even attempt to mitigate the consequences of a minor obtaining explicit content that is inappropriate is a tricky consideration. On one hand, just as high street retailers have a social responsibility not to enable the sale of sexually explicit material to a minor, Amazon should have a responsibility to its customers in the same way. However, the lack of face-to-face contact between Amazon and its customers presents a unique challenge. By directly, and explicitly passing the legal responsibility onto users, Amazon successfully avoids the potential minefield that issues such as erotic fiction present to them as a business. But at what cost? By ensuring that those who are under the age of eighteen are not deemed to be the responsible owner of the account, Amazon effectively ensures that not only are they not legally responsible for breaches in age-restriction law, even if they were to instigate a protection policy for the sale of erotic literature, it would be impossible to police.
The fundamentally flawed nature of Amazon’s age restriction policy, whilst at times proving to be convenient for the end-user, presents the question of whether there is a more effective way to manage the sale of restricted, or potentially sensitive material. In the case of Apple’s iBooks store, content is policed before being listed within the store. In this way, sensitive material is either prevented from reaching the consumer for purchase, or is flagged appropriately in the event explicit material is present. By maintaining control over the content of the store in this way, Apple themselves act as gatekeepers. This mechanism enables users to be more aware of the legalities surrounding the content they purchase. Whilst Apple admittedly do not face the issue of age-restriction on the same scale that Amazon do (as Amazon have a much broader stock) Apple at least demonstrate significant efforts to monitor their content. Amazon operates in a significantly different way, enabling the free publication and only subjecting content to retrospective approvals in extreme cases. Whilst it is possible for Amazon to retrospectively remove content from their listings, this remains rare – and they have come under fire over the decision to remove several of their listed eBook titles citing that Amazon may ‘at any time, refuse to list or distribute any content that it deems inappropriate’.This retrospective approval process makes it all the more alarming that the enforcement of under-age purchasing policy is virtually non-existent. Without an awareness of the content they advertise, how can Amazon be sure that they are not in fact corrupting vulnerable users?
Overall, there is a strong argument that Amazon’s flawed age restriction policy is enabling young users to come into contact with items and other content that may be inappropriate. Furthermore, the availability of erotic titles, and the fact that they are not classified as restricted items within the law supports the argument that Amazon, as the faceless supplier of these goods – who pass responsibility at the earliest opportunity – are not doing enough to protect our children. Parents face the challenge of policing what their children encounter, and it is time that Amazon started supporting them. There must be a reasonable level of protection that can be implemented once Amazon is made aware that their client is underage.