Amazon.com today was accused of selling banned books in Germany, but said that it is doing nothing illegal and that responsibility for adhering to local laws falls on its customers.
Accused of the same, representatives of Barnesandnoble.com said the company is investigating the situation.
Late last month, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center mailed letters to both companies, informing them that one of the organization's German-based representatives had ordered Adolf Hitler's notorious Mein Kampf and three other hateful books through their sites. The sale of Mein Kampf and other anti-Semitic literature is banned in Germany.
The center said yesterday that it had notified the German government of its findings.
The incident underscores the perils that online retailers face in complying with laws that govern commerce in other countries. While offline merchants typically expand internationally when they reach a certain size and expertise, even small Web retailers have the ability to reach customers around the world by simply setting up a site.
Indeed, both Amazon and Barnesandnoble.com ship globally, and Amazon has subsidiaries based in Germany and the United Kingdom. Barnesandnoble.com is 50 percent owned by German-based Bertelsmann.
But according to company representatives, neither firm has any one person dedicated to making sure their sales adhere to the laws of the countries to which it ships products.
Barnesandnoble.com spokeswoman Mary Ellen Keating said the company was in touch with the German government, but was not aware that it had violated any German laws. "It's an issue that's been brought to our attention, and we're looking into it," Keating said.
Amazon spokeswoman Lizzie Allen said the Wiesenthal Center ordered the books through the company's U.S.-based operation, not its German Web site. She said the German site does not sell books that are banned in the country.
Allen said the onus is ultimately on buyers to comply with censorship laws and other regulations. Amazon's international consumers are like tourists who purchase products in other countries and then take them home, she said.
"They are importing it," Allen said. "They need to make sure that they are abiding by the laws they have in their own country."
But attorney Rich Gray of San Jose firm Bergeson, Eliopoulos, Grady & Gray doubted whether Amazon's position would stand up in court.
"It's a cute argument, but it's a loser," Gray said.
Gray compared this case to one involving a New York-based online casino found guilty by New York courts of violating the state's anti-gambling laws--despite the fact that the company argued its computer servers were located in Antigua. Similarly, Amazon could be exposed to German laws through its German subsidiary, Gray said.
"It's going to be up to the German courts to decide that," he said. "Even if that argument works today under German law, I wouldn't expect it to work very long."
Forrester Research analyst Evie Black Dykema said e-commerce companies are still going through a learning process with international sales. And since they probably sell limited products abroad, Amazon, Barnesandnoble.com and other e-commerce companies likely have little financial incentive to make sure they are complying with scores of regulations, she said.
But as the e-commerce leader, Amazon should probably start paying more attention to the laws of other countries, she said. "If they were to pick some online retailer to hold accountable, Amazon would obviously be a target," Dykema said.
This is not the first time that Amazon has had to deal with the international implications of its operations. In February, the company removed a book critical of Scientology from its online bookshelves after it had been notified that the book was subject to a cease-and-desist order in the United Kingdom. After customers complained, Amazon later agreed to resume selling the book, but promised to block sales in the United Kingdom.