The Green Party of Canada has accused Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com of violating Canadian criminal and customs laws by selling racist and anti-Semitic books such as "The Turner Diaries" and "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" in the country. Party leaders say that although they notified the companies in February, Amazon and Barnesandnoble.com have not yet responded.
"It's important that they take responsibility for what they are distributing out into the public," Green Party spokesman Richard Warman said. "They have to respect the laws of other countries."
But Canadian officials expressed doubts about whether the sale of such books over the Internet by foreign companies constitutes a crime.
"This is not straight cut," Royal Canadian Mounted Police spokesman Paul Marsh said. "It's not straight-forward when you look at the sections."
Representatives for Amazon were not available to comment. A Barnesandnoble spokesperson declined to comment.
The controversy is the latest incident in which an e-commerce player has been taken to task for carrying hate-related merchandise. Last month, Amazon and Barnesandnoble.com agreed to post a statement from the Anti-Defamation League calling the "Protocols of Zion" an anti-Semitic forgery.
Earlier this year, online auction giant eBay bowed to pressure from outside groups and banned the sale of items that promote hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nation.
And last August, Amazon, Barnesandnoble and Borders Online came under fire from the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center for selling Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" in Germany. The companies later banned sales of the publication in the country.
Canada prohibits advocating genocide or publicly inciting hatred via spoken or written words. The country also bans the importation of hate propaganda.
The "Turner Diaries" and the "Protocols of Zion" are on a list of books that the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency consider illegal to import into the country, agency spokesman Michel Cl?roux confirmed. But with $1 billion worth of goods crossing the border from the United States into Canada every day, the agency cannot check every package that comes over the border, Cl?roux said. In any case, if the agency intercepted a shipment of banned books, it would contact the Canadian importer, not the U.S. exporter, he said. He added that the agency did not have authority to regulate the actual online sales of the books.
"Electronic commerce is outside our jurisdiction as customs officers," Cl?roux said.
Complying with scores of complex international laws is a "classic issue" of doing business on the Internet, said Maureen Dorney, an attorney with Palo Alto, Calif.-based Gray, Cary, Ware & Freidenrich. Amazon and Barnesandnoble could have some criminal liability for the sales of banned books even if they don't have a presence in the countries they are shipping to, she said.
"If you are willing to make your products available internationally, you are potentially subject to the laws of all those jurisdictions that you are shipping to," Dorney said.
Regardless of whether the sales are illegal, Green Party officials said the companies had a moral obligation to refrain from profiting from the sale of hate literature.
"We would like to express our general concern about the decision by Amazon.com to carry works that are self-evidently racist," the party said in a letter to the leading e-tailer. "We do not doubt the right of these individuals to hold racist ideas, but we do question the moral and ethical basis of Amazon's decision to profit from their distribution and how this reflects upon Amazon's presumed desire to be a responsible corporate citizen."