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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

How Amazon Ended Up With Auschwitz Christmas Ornaments for Sale

The day before Cyber Monday, Amazon’s largest shopping event of the year, the company faced yet another controversy over offensive items for sale on its site. On Sunday, Amazon removed Christmas tree ornaments, a bottle opener, and other products featuring pictures of Auschwitz, the largest Nazi concentration camp where historians estimate more than a million people, most of them Jews, were killed during the Holocaust. The company took down the products after the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland publicly called on Amazon to act.

“Auschwitz on a bottle opener is rather disturbing and disrespectful,” a tweet from the museum’s official Twitter account read.

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“All sellers must follow our selling guidelines and those who do not will be subject to action, including potential removal of their account,” a spokesperson for Amazon said in a statement. “The products in question have been removed.” Amazon’s policy on "Offensive and Controversial Materials" bans the sale of “products related to human tragedies and natural disasters,” except for books, movies, and music.

The Auschwitz Museum uncovered more items on Amazon Monday that featured pictures of the concentration camp, including a beach towel printed with a photograph of the notorious German sign at its entrance that reads “Arbeit macht frei,” or work sets you free. The Washington Post discovered similar products, including a Valentine’s Day keychain featuring an image of Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial with the words “I love you” printed over it.

The Auschwitz Museum noted that Wish, another ecommerce platform, was selling Christmas tree ornaments with pictures of the concentration camp, as well. A spokesperson for Wish said the company “has a strict no tolerance policy for any products that contain hateful symbols or messages.” On Twitter, Wish apologized for the items, and said that it does its “best to monitor the listings that are uploaded by sellers who use our platform.”

Amazon and other ecommerce companies have long struggled to remove counterfeit items and offensive products listed for sale among the millions of third-party merchants who use their sites. In January, Amazon took down items like bath mats and doormats that featured verses from the Koran after receiving complaints from the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Last summer, it removed items including a swastika necklace after a report highlighting the products was published by two progressive advocacy groups.

James Thomson, a former Amazon employee and partner at Buy Box Experts, a firm that consults with Amazon sellers, says the company does do some automatic screening before items go up for sale. “If you have certain words in your listings, Amazon will find them right away,” he says, like weapons or drugs. But humans don’t manually review each product, and plenty of goods that violate Amazon’s policies fall through the cracks.

What’s less understood is how offensive items are created and listed in the first place. Some are almost certainly the work of sellers intentionally pushing hateful or racist ideologies, whether to spread those ideas or to make a buck (or both).

But many of these listings are likely the unfortunate byproduct of an increasingly automated ecommerce landscape. In this world, sellers attempt to make a profit by offering vast quantities of easily customizable items to fill every consumer niche imaginable. A merchant, for example, might flood the market with thousands of posters featuring different and sometimes incredibly obscure inspirational quotes, in the hopes that some pay off.

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Two of the Amazon merchants who sold Auschwitz-themed Christmas ornaments, Hqiyaols Ornament and Fcheng, are still active sellers on the platform. Both currently offer a seemingly endless array of other ornaments with images from around the world, including a church in Spain, a picturesque house in Nuremberg, Germany, and a colorful wat in Cambodia. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to why one location was chosen over another, and almost none of the ornaments have a single review.

That’s because the ornaments likely don’t exist until someone buys one. The sellers behind them have created an enormous ecommerce net of sorts, designed to catch that one person from Cumberland, Kentucky, looking for a hometown-themed Christmas ornament when they log onto Amazon. When that happens, whoever is behind Fcheng can print the image onto the ceramic ornament and send it to the lucky buyer. In the meantime, they’re not sitting on expensive inventory, and it doesn’t cost them anything to continue listing ornaments featuring other places on Amazon.

Many of the pictures these sellers use—including one of Auschwitz—can be traced back to Pixabay, a site offering images that it says can be downloaded for free and used for almost any purpose without needing to credit the photographer who took them. Last year, The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal similarly traced the images used by a merchant selling posters to Pixabay.

While Pixabay encourages people to use its images for most editorial and commercial purposes, the Pixabay License forbids selling “unaltered copies” of its photographs, like posters or prints “on a physical object,” which would conceivably include ornaments. Pixabay did not immediately return a request for comment.

It’s not clear whether merchants like the ones uncovered by the Auschwitz Museum use computer scripts or other tools to list products in bulk, and Amazon declined to say whether it believes they rely on automation. These sellers' goods do give off a certain computer-generated eeriness. Encountering them is like stumbling upon a bizarre digital artifact, a consumer product designed to cater to a human desire that may never exist.

When merchants rely on this strategy of abundance, though, they create a mountain of ghost products Amazon and other ecommerce companies need to competently vet, or else they risk facing a scandal like the one that unfolded this week. At the scale these companies operate, there's no easy solution. Something like Auschwitz Christmas ornaments might just be the cost of doing business the Amazon way.

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