Monday, April 13, 2009

Amazon crossing customers

Online retailer Amazon recently deranked and then removed from front page searches all “adult” books which—surprise!—meant all books with gay and lesbian themes or characters disappeared—including works by authors such as James Baldwin, Annie Proulx and E.M. Forster. However, “adult” heterosexual books, including sexually explicit heterosexual romances and a book of Playboy centrefolds, were not called “adult” and remained ranked.

This set off a firestorm of criticism on blogs and on Twitter, where the tag #Amazonfail suddenly became the top tag. Amazon now claims that it’s all a mistake, caused by a “glitch” and there is no new policy to classify all gay and lesbian books as “adult”—funny, I didn’t know that Amazon was selling swampland in Florida…

Okay, here’s the thing: I don't think that Amazon is lying, but they are trying to come up with an excuse for this. Craig Seymour noticed changes back in February and late last week another author, Mark Probst, received confirmation that non-adult books were deranked because of “adult” content in "consideration of our entire customer base." At the same time, searching for “homosexual” gives as the top result a book to help parents in “preventing homosexuality”, and most of the rest are anti-gay, so naturally people assume an anti-gay bias.

How can a “glitch” of this magnitude go on for weeks without Amazon noticing, despite a growing chorus of complaints? Was that deliberate?

As I see it, the real problem—and this is important—isn’t a plot by Amazon to somehow suppress gay and lesbian themes and authors. Instead, I suspect the real “glitch” is that wingnuts can pervert Amazon’s systems to object to a book, demanding that one with gay and lesbian themes be classified as “adult”. If that happens often enough—and wingnuts are nothing if not determined—a non-adult book can become labelled as “adult” for purely political reasons and then de-ranked. This is the same fault in the iTunes Store’s system of allowing users’ pettiness or politics to determine rankings.

This is potentially a much bigger problem because it strikes at the core of Amazon’s culture of customer involvement. To stop customer “objections” leading to the false categorisation of books, Amazon will have to put all objections into a queue awaiting review by humans, during which time the book’s classification—and rankings—must remain unchanged.

This blog is a participant in the Amazon Associates programme, originally as a way of making music and books I mentioned on my podcast available for purchase. Until this situation is clarified and resolved, I’ve suspended my participation in the programme. (I restored participation when the problem cleared).

Update 14/04/09: Hackers are claiming responsibility for this, including one who claims he did it because his online sex ads were blocked (he claimed he was looking for women to have sex and do drugs with). The connection? He claims ads of gay men looking for similar action weren't blocked, therefore, his ads being blocked was the fault of gay men. Right. Anyway, others have doubted this claim is actually true, but I honestly have no idea either way.

What's certainly true is that it was very easy for a small number of "objections" to get a book classified as "adult", so someone with an anti-gay agenda, whatever their motivation, could have exploited the "glitch" in Amazon's systems. The company has reportedly now stopped users' ability to get a book classified as "adult" and, personally, I doubt Amazon will be able to bring it back or this sort of attack—which is looking far more likely than any deliberate censorship—will happen again. Personally, I think the idea of fellow users being able to assign "reputation" is a deeply flawed concept, but that's a topic in itself.


d said...

GAH! Dodgy!!

[and I think Disney bought all the swampland in Florida. ;) ]

Roger Owen Green said...

'Cmon - you want HUMANS to evaluate these complaints; but that would be SO inefficient.

Actually, your scenario seems quite plausible. No actual antipathy by Amazon itself, just a bunch of busybody cranks.

epilonious said...

Sounds like shenanigans.

The worst thing a company can do to it's customers (and, the worst thing a podcast can do to it's listeners) is to allow them to participate and interact with each other without some very strict moderation or at least some very obvious observation.

It seems Amazon's system is flawed. If it allows people to do silly things like get things tagged as 'adult', and it doesn't have the filtering to go "wait, is user 'gayh8r' just tagging all these gay/lesbian books as adult to game our system?" then it's something that needs to be fixed. If that filtering is not immediately available algorithmically. Then put a few interns on undoing it, and tell everyone you're working to fix the issue, and expand on it so that some jerk going by 'blkh8r' can't pull the same shenanigans with Toni Morrison books.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

No matter what happened, this has been a public relations disaster for Amazon, and their response hasn't helped. Calling it a "glitch" only made the conspiracy theorists dig their heels in. But I suppose Amazon can't admit that their system is fundamentally flawed.

One thing that has appalled me about the Web response is how easily some are getting off topic to use this incident as an opportunity to attack corporations generally. I mean, come on! What possible commercial interest could be served by hiding, say, Stephen Fry's autobiography? The wingnuts already hate Amazon for its imaginary "liberal" (or is the word now socialist? Communist?) ideology, while ordinary conservatives quite happily order from the company all the time.

I'm becoming more and more convinced that the mistake here was Amazon allowing customers to basically ban books.

Jason in DC said...

I think this happens more than we know. After all look what happened with your one star review.

I agree with epilonious that without some sort of a review of the comments made this sort of thing is bound to happen.

But, unfortunately, companies are going to take the easy way out. After all the squeaky wheel is the one that gets noticed.

epilonious said...

After reading a techy/social blog's take on it(http://www.needcoffee.com/2009/04/13/amazonfail-day-after/ and http://www.needcoffee.com/2009/04/12/amazonfail/)

I am rather convinced now that it's shenanigans. And not even some fundamentalist group trying to be mean to gay people, but a bunch of people who love seeing drama erupt and knowing they caused it.

1. Hacker/cracker (or groups of them) find flaws in Amazon's rating system, find they can remove certain things and promote others rather easily and programmatically

2. Hacker/cracker/group make wide sweeping changes to the arrangement of Amazon's ranked books, and time it with Easter Weekend, when Amazon would have a skeleton crew working

3. Hacker/cracker/group drops hints to some of the more reactionary crankpots about amazon doing something mildly anti-LGBTQ

4. Sit back, watch LGBTQ folks and their allies explode with rage, start all sorts of campaigns to expose and judge, watch Amazon fumble, laugh for weeks at the capabilities of social engineering.

At this point, I advocate sitting back, re-enabling the amazon account, giggling a bit, and entering a few betting pools about which groups will claim credit and in which order.

I also ask you to sit and wonder whether having a hair trigger about anything perceptibly anti-LGBTQ is really useful, or just something that is going to get LGBTQ into more trouble than it's worth.

Jason in DC said...

Here's a story from AP that ran in the Washington Post about it. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/13/AR2009041302310.html?sub=AR

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

I dunno which scenario is more disturbing: Some homophobic bigots work out a way to "get" gay people (or their literature, anyway), or some hacker thinks it's fun and funny to cause distress to innocent people who are typically victims. They're both incredibly pathetic and sick behaviours in my book. It's certainly enough to make me hope it turns out to be a stupid error on the part of Amazon—which it may yet be. After all, both hackers and right wing bigots have been known to greatly exaggerate their own importance and successes.

I've never had a personal Amazon Account and, as far as I know, no one has ever ordered anything through my participation in the Amazon Associates programme. So, the company clearly isn't losing anything from me In my case, "suspending" really just means replacing the server-linked graphic with a static image that doesn't link to Amazon; all I have to do is paste the code back in to re-activate it—when I'm ready or get around to it (they latter will be the real factor).

As for the "hair trigger", some people seemed to assume the worst about Amazon much too quickly, and I think that advocating boycotts before the facts were clear was stupid; that the facts STILL aren't clear makes boycotts still a silly response.

However, I absolutely defend someone's right to make rash decisions, especially on GLBT issues. Anyone who feels passionately about something so deeply personal and emotional is inclined to have a "hair trigger"; it's actually the one thing that GLBT people and wignuts share—basically passion often leads to haste.

But when it comes to GLBT issues, if GLBT people don't defend themselves, who will? If GLBT people don't take threats and attacks seriously, no one else will step in. Sometimes, they'll get it wrong, sometimes they'll move too quickly, and sometimes the first will happen specifically because of the second. So what? If the alternative is to risk allowing homophobic thugs to beat up—literally or figuratively—GLBT people, then I say sometimes a good offense is the best defense.

What possible trouble can community self-defense cause? The homophobes will still hate us, the bigots will still attempt to destroy us (literally or figuratively) and the rest of the population takes little or no notice either way.

And, in any case, there's absolutely no way to try and control something as diverse and unruly as the GLBT communities. I wish that people in general would choose their battles carefully and strategically, but I know that's not going to happen, and I'm okay with that. As Edmund Burke reputedly said, but may not have, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing."

I saw most of that WaPo story as an AP story somwhere else, but I thought it was interesting that the WaPo made the same link to the passing of Judith Krug that I did.