Amazon moved to restrict items and search results related to LGBTQ people and issues on its website in the United Arab Emirates 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 with the threat of penalties, the documents show. It wasn’t 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 agreement that tech companies are willing 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 over privacy concerns, and Google has removed an app for a Russian opposition leader facing threats of prosecution last year.
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 for more than 150 keywords, the document shows.
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 Times tried queries 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.” All are available in print and digital formats on Amazon’s website in the United States. (Ms. Gay is a frequent contributor to The 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 spokeswoman, said in a statement. “With Amazon stores around the world, we must also comply with the local laws and regulations in 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 Amazon of the Middle East. Two years later, it rebranded the site Amazon.ae, adding products offered from 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, Seattle, showed a challenge to a global company that is trying to juggle many constituents. While Amazon celebrates Pride in many of its operations, offers 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 because of Amazon’s Financial donations to politicians who oppose LGBTQ rights.
The company has said it will make political donations even if it doesn’t support every position 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 pressing a petition to Amazon to remove books on its US website that workers said was anti-transgender and violated the company’s Prohibition on hate speech.
Amazon has typically avoided 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 had recently adapted 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 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 was a concern. Amazon’s cloud computing division made it harder to evade censors in China and Russia because it prohibited workarounds that customers had been using.