Adventures in Ethics and Science

Those of you on Twitter yesterday probably noticed the explosion of tweets with the hashtag #amazonfail. For those who were otherwise occupied carving up chocolate bunnies or whatnot, the news spread to the blogs, Facebook, and the traditional media outlets. The short version is that on Easter Sunday, a critical mass of people noticed that many, many books that Amazon sells had their Amazon sales rank stripped, and that these books stopped coming up in searches on Amazon that were not searches on the book titles (or, presumably, authors).

What fanned the flames of the frenzy were certain consistencies in what kind of book was getting deranked. Many were books with LGBT subject matter. Some were classic books (like Lady Chatterly’s Lover) or more recent titles with what might be classified as adult themes. Some were books about disability and sexuality. A partial list of the deranked titles can be found here.

The effect of the derankings angered lots of people, indignant that a search on “homosexuality” on the behemoth etailer’s website brought up as top results guidebooks to curing your child’s homosexuality but omitted titles aimed at helping prevent suicide in gay teens. The question to which people wanted an answer was whether these changes reflected concerted policy on Amazon’s part, and whether the problem (as seen by the angry Twitterfolk) was going to be addressed.

As I write this post, the response from Amazon has been anemic to non-existent. The news outlets are reporting that Amazon blames a “glitch” for the derankings. Publisher Weekly reports:

On Sunday evening, however, an Amazon spokesperson said that a glitch had occurred in its sales ranking feature that was in the process of being fixed. The spokesperson added that there was no new adult policy.

The Associated Press was also told by Amazon that it was a glitch, but they note that the problem dates back much farther than this past weekend:

Craig Seymour, author of the gay memoir “All I Could Bare,” wrote on his blog Sunday that his sales rank was dropped in February, then restored nearly four weeks later, after he was told by Amazon that his book had been “classified as an Adult product.”

Indeed, author Mark R. Probst posted on his blog on April 12:

On Amazon.com two days ago, mysteriously, the sales rankings disappeared from two newly-released high profile gay romance books: “Transgressions” by Erastes and “False Colors” by Alex Beecroft. Everybody was perplexed. Was it a glitch of some sort? The very next day HUNDREDS of gay and lesbian books simultaneously lost their sales rankings, including my book “The Filly.” There was buzz, What’s going on? Does Amazon have some sort of campaign to suppress the visibility of gay books? Is it just a major glitch in the system? Many of us decided to write to Amazon questioning why our rankings had disappeared. Most received evasive replies from customer service reps not versed in what was happening. As I am a publisher and have an Amazon Advantage account through which I supply Amazon with my books, I had a special way to contact them. 24 hours later I had a response:

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.

Hence, if you have further questions, kindly write back to us.

Best regards,

Ashlyn D
Member Services
Amazon.com Advantage

It should be noted (and was, widely), that if the deranking was the result of an “adult” material policy, it rested on a very odd definition, one that flagged the children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies as adult but left books of nude pictures of Playboy centerfolds as all-ages.

On the LA Times blog “Jacket Copy”, Carolyn Kellogg pressed for a bit more explanation:

I asked Patty Smith [Amazon Director of Corporate Communications] this:

From a layperson’s perspective, this glitch does seem to have affected certain types of books more heavily than others. In fact, only one of the top 10 books in your Gay & Lesbian section continues to have a sales ranking (the Kindle version of “The Picture of Dorian Gray”). No other section is similarly affected. Can you comment on that?

The reply:

Unfortunately, I’m not able to comment further. We’re working to resolve the issue, but I don’t have any further information.

While Amazon was having trouble getting out in front on the situation (or even getting out a consistent story about what was going on), netizens placed calls to Amazon customer service, drafted open letters, signed online petitions, and did some Google bombing to update the meaning of Amazon rank in common parlance.

In short, Amazon has a little bit of a situation on its hands.

In following the thousands of #amazonfail tweets last night, I noticed some questions of an ethical nature that kept coming up. Having slept on them, here are my thoughts:

Can’t Amazon do what it wants as far as listing the items it sells? Aren’t the charges of “censorship” overblown?

It’s true that Amazon is a private company, not a government. As such, Amazon has every right to decide what books and products to sell, what products to display in results to customer search queries, and so forth. Deranking books probably doesn’t rise to the level of censorship — goodness knows, I get madder at decisions made at public libraries to restrict access to certain books, or to keep them out of the collections altogether.

However, Amazon does not own its customers. Consumers are entitled to view Amazon’s deranking of books as appalling. They are entitled to share information about Amazon’s behavior with other customers, entitled to voice their anger to Amazon, and entitled to organize efforts to shift business from Amazon to vendors with less appalling behavior. As it happens, Web 2.0 tools like Twitter and Facebook make this communication and coordination remarkably efficient, even on an Easter Sunday. You’d think a company that grew up with the internet might have anticipated that.

No one knows what happened here, and whether Amazon is to blame. Shouldn’t people refrain from voicing their anger and/or taking their business elsewhere until Amazon has a chance to explain its policy and/or fix the problem?

Surely, there are different theories floating around as to what happened to cause so many books to be deranked. Amazon cites a technical glitch. Probst got an email from Amazon citing a policy change. Some suggest that the “glitchy” algorithm may have implemented the deranking on the basis of category metadata (which is generated by Amazon users). And some have raised the possibility that the deranking may have resulted from a conscious effort to exploit weaknesses in Amazon’s community-based features (like tagging) either to accomplish their will (by removing “offensive” books from Amazon search results) or to hurt Amazon by whipping up an angry mob.

Now, in terms of the nuts-and-bolts question of how Amazon fixes the problem and prevents such problems in the future, it may matter quite a lot which of these scenarios actually played out. However, in each of these scenarios Amazon bears at least part of the responsibility and needs to own up to a failure — either a bad policy, or a bad algorithm (which some human being designed and implemented), or exploitable loopholes in tagging and meta-data, or rogue employees (whether customer service or tech folks) substituting their own will for official company policy. Whatever the official corporate intentions, Amazon gets to deal with the effects of what happened. And taking note of how many regular customers expressed outrage might be a smart business move.

Even if you argue that customers have an obligation to view Amazon as innocent until proven guilty, customers are well within their rights to take their business elsewhere while the jury is still out — and even afterwards, if they are not swayed by the sincerity of Amazon’s apologies, nor convinced of the robustness of Amazon’s technical side. Amazon is not the only book store in the world — not even the only book store on the internet. Customer discomfort with how Amazon runs its business (whether through conscious policy, technical mishap, employees acting beyond Amazon’s control, or community actions that affect Amazon’s listings and search results), is a perfectly legitimate reason for customers to take their business elsewhere. It’s up to Amazon to overcome that discomfort.

Here again, its worth noticing the power of the internets in making information easier to share. This means that honesty and transparency will do more to restore customer confidence than ass-covering. Either there was a new policy about “adult material” implemented or there wasn’t. Either the algorithm that generates search results behaved as it was intended to, or it didn’t. Getting clear on the facts — even if they are accompanied by the admission , “We blew it!” — is probably better for business than getting caught in lies.

It can’t be fair to blame Amazon for the actions of its community of users, can it?

Amazon can decide to set up a business where certain key decisions (like tagging and the generation of category metadata) are put in the hands of the community. But I’m guessing that in the course of its history Amazon has had occasion to notice that the online community consists of many distinct factions with clashing opinions and interests. Deciding to cede control to the community (or to whichever factions of the community are most mobilized to use that control to achieve their own ends) is dangerous, so Amazon needs to own that choice. If the result is that part of the community feels itself targeted or excluded and takes its business elsewhere (and otherwise tries to make things really hard for your company), well, that’s what shifting responsibility from yourself to the community can get you.

Won’t someone think of the children? Shouldn’t someone protect vulnerable eyeballs from distasteful search results?

Thanks, but I don’t need Amazon to protect my kids from objectionable material on the internet. That’s my job.

Moreover, judgments about what is “adult” or “objectionable” vary wildly, making for some weird incongruities in which books were deranked and which kept their ranks (a biography of Ellen Degeneres deranked, one of porn star Ron Jeremy ranked; The Joy of Sex deranked, The Anarchist’s Cookbook ranked; Heather Has Two Mommies deranked, picture books of nude Playboy centerfolds ranked). If Amazon wants to be the world’s book store, why would they imagine that one such set of judgments would fit all? (Seriously, hasn’t Walmart already filled the “family friendly” censorious niche?)

If Amazon wants to offer its customers help that they actually want, they might use community feedback to help develop filters customized to customer search preferences. That would send the message that Amazon doesn’t value just one set of sensitivities. Of course, in the even that Amazon does value just one set of sensitivities, they shouldn’t be surprised if people with different sensitivities take their valuable money elsewhere.

And personally, until I see Amazon take real responsibility for this mess, and for fixing it, I’ll be taking my business elsewhere. Either this will help me curb my book-buying habit, or some other book sellers are going to benefit significantly from Amazon’s evasive maneuvers.

Hat-tip to Skloot, whose tweets sucked me into hours of #amazonfail.

Comments

  1. #1 Joshua Zelinsky
    April 13, 2009

    Note that there was an attempt at a “family friendly” online bookseller a while back abunga.com. They are now defunct. It didn’t succeed at all.

    Another issue is that publishers were never told when their books were being deranked. Even if this was a glitch, a publisher should get a note when one of their books is deranked. I’m dismayed that that isn’t automatic. This possibly breaks some of Amazon’s contractual obligations. Not good behavior at all.

  2. #2 Rev Matt
    April 13, 2009

    As you may be aware, a ‘hacker’ (and I use the term very loosely and improperly) has claimed that it was his work, which doesn’t entirely exonerate Amazon for the application hole or their failure to figure it out when it apparently started back in February.

  3. #3 Lethe
    April 13, 2009

    I really like what Lars Sjoberg had to say on subjects like these some time ago: “Communication is part of the market.

    http://slumbering.lungfish.com/?p=265

  4. #4 Joshua Zelinsky
    April 13, 2009

    Rev, I haven’t seen that claim? Do you have a citation for it? I’d be very dubious about such a claim given that more or less anonymous hackers frequently make unsubstantiated claims and also Amazon would have presumably just had to say so if that were the case.

  5. #5 OmegaMom
    April 13, 2009
  6. #6 Kim E Landwehr
    April 13, 2009

    Ok, first this is only a theory which I have nothing to back it up, but I thought I would put it out anyway. My theory is that someone in the lower ranks at Amazon, who has a certain anti-gay agenda enter a code which would automatically label gay themed books as adult. No one in caught it because they weren’t looking for it.

  7. #7 Peggy
    April 13, 2009

    There’s finally an official Amazon.com response and apology:
    http://blog.seattlepi.com/amazon/archives/166329.asp

    It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles � in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search.

    It’s still not clear if the problem was due to incompetence or malice, but I don’t think that really matters – the end effect was the same.

  8. #8 Jane
    April 13, 2009

    The category metadata is actually supplied by the publisher and it is not user generated. Users can “tag” books but the categorization is what is used, in part, to upsell other books within the same categorization. It appears that the filtering was done on category metadata, an internal issue and not one caused by hackers or unhappy users.

  9. #9 Joe
    April 13, 2009

    Hi. I just wanted to compliment you for writing such a thoughtful, fair, well-written, thorough, and reasoned response to the Amazon debacle. I mentioned it on Twitter; hope that was ok. Thanks for contributing to the elevation of internet culture. From a gay, philosophical Christian who loves to read.

  10. #10 llewelly
    April 13, 2009

    OmegaMom, that’s an obvious troll.

  11. #11 Joshua Zelinsky
    April 13, 2009

    Omegamom, that’s interesting but I’m not at all convinced. It doesn’t explain why Amazon wouldn’t just say so if this had happened.

  12. #12 dreikin
    April 13, 2009

    I still don’t get why people care about censoring so-called adult material in the first place. It has all sorts of deleterious effects, but does nothing, as far as I can tell, beneficial.

  13. #13 Neuro-conservative
    April 13, 2009

    OK, so to recap:

    1) A company with 20,000 employees experiences a communication breakdown in its France division that propagates across its entire network.

    2) An online community of LGBT activists and their allies immediately begin to develop conspiracy theories and demand boycotts.

    3) Weekend staff at the PR department of the 20,000-employee corporation provide a swift yet inadequate reaction while gathering information.

    4) The corporation offers an abject apology and explanation on the first available business day, and has already corrected some of the damage.

    5) A tenured philosopher spends 24 hours thinking about all of this and comes to the conclusion that corporations are free to sell whatever they want and consumers are free to shop wherever they want.

    6) Said philosopher has yet to issue any clarification of her own intent to boycott said corporation “until I see Amazon take real responsibility for this mess, and for fixing it…”

  14. #14 bill
    April 13, 2009

    Satan must be looking for his warm jacket, I agree with neuroconservative!

    There *might* have been an issue — the reasonable thing to do would have been to contact Amazon and give them a couple of days to cope with it all, ferfucksake. But noooo, we had to have BOYCOTT and OUTRAGE and INSULT TO ALL DECENT PEOPLE and on and on and on.

    This was bullshit, and the online wannabe lynch mob should be embarrassed.

  15. #15 Patrick Cahalan
    April 14, 2009

    @ Neuro-conservative

    It’s certainly not unexpected or abnormal for any community to notice discrepancies that are reflected in their community. Indeed, in the absence of clear information when they attempt to find out what possible explanations there are for this discrepancy, they’re going to assume that their community is targeted, because they have no data regarding other communities that may be targeted.

    That’s not “jumping to conspiracy theories”. If an ethnic community finds pejorative commentary written on their front doors, they’re going to assume that someone out there is a racist. If the pejorative commentary is written all over various communities, but the only people who know this fact aren’t sharing it between those communities, the communication breakdown is causing the misunderstanding, not people jumping to “wild” conclusions.

    I don’t myself see anything particularly apologetic about Amazon’s statement, which doesn’t appear to be official. If this was a “Sev-1″ incident, going up to senior VP level, fixing the technical problem isn’t the half of it, the other half is customer relations (http://blog.seattlepi.com/amazon/archives/166384.asp)… and there really hasn’t been much of that.

    This incident raises a lot of questions about Amazon’s data policy. How is their data structure designed, that a single person can cause this sort of error? Why is there not a check in place to notice major differences between listings, triggering an alert? Anyone who has touched a book on relational databases or run one in production knows that you absolutely need rollback capability. If they didn’t have this capability designed, what other egregious errors do they have in their data structures, IT infrastructure, and business processes? What have they done to ensure this doesn’t happen again? If something like this does happen, how is it that a major business problem (apparently one in the most severe category they have) results in no effective communication from the company?

    Do I think this was a major attempt to blacklist LGBT literature? No, not really. It’s possible but unlikely – the evolution of the disclosure (lots of people noticing a major change in a short period of time) leads me to believe that a technical error is a much more likely explanation.

    Do I think it shows that Amazon has made a few real stinkers in their system design? Oh, ja. Am I now less inclined to rely upon them as a vendor? You betcha. Have they said or done anything since the story broke to provide me with any sort of confidence? Nope, not yet.

  16. #16 Lab Lemming
    April 14, 2009

    I think that anyone who expects an instant and correct answer from a enormously complex corporation on a major public holiday needs to stop smoking crack and go back on their ADD medication.

    Maybe Amazon knows the problem. Maybe they’re still trying to trace it through byzantine computer AI simulation. Maybe the people in charge decided to turn off their phones during their kids’ Easter egg hunts. But expecting an instant answer to a complex problem is completely unrealistic. And expecting them to say something before they have a chance to check their facts is immature.

  17. #17 Jim Lippard
    April 14, 2009

    Patrick: I disagree. Assuming malicious agents for something that has a plausible explanation in terms of error *is* jumping to conspiracy theories. I find it surprising that you even now describe the error explanation as merely “plausible” and are looking for other reasons to criticize Amazon.com in a “moving goalposts” maneuver. I agree with Lab Lemming–as someone who has worked behind the scenes dealing with various kinds of glitches at very large corporations, it can easily take a few days to get a full explanation and help a corporate communications team produce a comprehensive response. Amazon.com has already admitted that this error was “embarrassing and ham-fisted” and taken responsibility for it.

  18. #18 Anonymous
    April 14, 2009

    The hacker’s code doesn’t even work.

  19. #19 Brooks
    April 14, 2009

    Honestly, at the end of the day, I could care less about the “cause” of the #amazonfail incident, be it technical, user-driven, or a rogue employee. My ultimate concern, and, I believe, that of the author of this post, is that Amazon has any sort of “censorship” in place, at all, especially for literature and other art forms. Avoiding offense of others’ sensibilities is not a valid excuse, I’m sorry, but that’s just how I feel about it. Censorship, in any form, has no place in a free society. If that makes you uncomfortable, then, perhaps, you’re too immature to live in one.

  20. #20 rosechimera
    April 14, 2009

    I do not understand how a technical error that began in February is not discovered, and that correspondence is given to authors stating “In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude ‘adult’ material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists.” is given in response to an inquiry regarding a young adult novel without anybody wondering what’s wrong with the picture. I think the de-ranking was policy, but I don’t think they realized the broad effects it would have on their cataloging.

  21. #21 Ben
    April 14, 2009

    “Please be advised that we are aware of the current issue with Amazon’s ranking system. We are working to gather more information regarding the issue and will issue a statement as soon as we have all the information and a solution.”

    A nice standard statement like that from Amazon would surely put a lot of people at ease. Most people don’t expect an immediate answer (@Lab Lemming) they simply want to know a company is aware of the issue and will give them more information when they have it. It all goes back to the need for transparency in operations.

  22. #22 Elaine
    April 14, 2009

    Benefit of the doubt

    I am a longtime Amazon customer. I love their ease of use, have spent hundreds of dollars there, and am strongly predisposed to keep using them. We even have a Kindle for gosh sakes.

    However, in my time I’ve seen a lot of controversies with Amazon. The one-click patent, the print-on-demand kerfluffle, the issue authors originally had with putting used books and new books on the same page, and probably more that I have forgotten. And now we have strong evidence that Amazon is filtering results of their searches without an opt-in/opt-out mechanism, or any transparency. I don’t need a nanny when I search for books.

    After a while, the benefit of the doubt argument starts wearing a little thin. Yes, Amazon is a publicly held company that is supposed to make money, but just as they are entitled to run their company as they see fit, I am entitled to spend my money as I see fit.

  23. #23 Randy
    April 14, 2009

    As my friend Sam Starbuck observed, “If you shenanigan the internet, the internet will generally shoot you in the face.” And Amazon just got both barrels right in the nostrils.

    It has also been observed, “Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.” That appears to apply here. Nevertheless, I am inclined to agree with Patrick insofar as this reduces my trust in Amazon; they clearly have a fault in their programming that allowed this disaster to occur, and that doesn’t inspire confidence, over and above the PR fallout.

  24. #24 Claudine Torfs
    April 14, 2009

    I have been a regular customer, but am now waiting for a word from Amazon to tell me they are not censoring books. We do not need to go back to the Middle Ages when books that did not follow the narrow minded ideas of the times were burned on the public square.

  25. #25 Lauren
    April 14, 2009

    First, I’d like to just compliment this blogger for such a well-rounded article that looks at a lot of the issues and isn’t making any sweeping general statements. Thank you.

    Second, a point that I think has been overlooked is that it didn’t happen all at once on Sunday. It started in February, and authors were apparently getting letters from Amazon customer service personnel saying that their work was falling into the adult category under “new policy.” Then someone else says that there was no “new policy.” Could these letters have been automatic and a result of the “glitch?” Possibly. But whomever is responsible, for whatever reason, anti-gay agenda or not, I agree with Patrick that Amazon needs to seriously look at their data systems and make some adjustments. This kind of thing shouldn’t happen to ANY category of book, adult or otherwise. I’m sure if it was happening to Christian inspirational literature, or African American literature, that the internet would be full of the same kind of outrage.

    But look at the timeline of events, and things start to look less than noble for Amazon.

  26. #26 Vashtan
    April 14, 2009

    Very good post – I’ll link and spread this. I’m completely on the same page with you here, and I’m taking my business elsewhere. Have already deleted my pre-orders, wanted to give Amazon a chance to rectify/apologize. I’ll walk into a bricks-and-mortar store tomorrow and I’ll thank them for not being Amazon. That should lift some spirits. :)

  27. #27 Brian
    April 14, 2009

    The best argument from both angles I’ve read yet on this mess. In my opinion, I have to agree that whatever the cause of this, Amazon must bear the brunt of the blame and suffer the consequences. I’ve tried to stay above the fray and not jump automatically to the deliberate censorship conclusion, but regardless, Amazon’s slow response, and, more importantly, their multiple explanations that contradict one another, are insulting enough to my intelligence that I’ll take my business elsewhere, possibly permanently.

  28. #28 DeMoy
    April 14, 2009

    Finally I get to a blog that isn’t intent on shredding Amazon – most everything that’s been posted here I have to agree on, since, and to repeat myself, again, I just repost one of my last replies here.

    I for one can get ANY GLBT book I want on Amazon.com on any page with or without ranking, by simply putting in author or title and forget about any ‘keywords’ or labels and tags, that’s just too complex and their system might come up with rubbish – so what’s the problem here again? Author > title, voila. Simple. And in case you get an anti-gay book first, well, then that’s obviously down to bigger sales – no matter how sad it would be. Amazon have NO anti-gay ‘policies’ and then simply tweak the numbers. They wanna ‘sell’ – ANYTHING, not deprive a certain group of finding their GLBT books suddenly.

    And why on Earth should these books ‘not’ be categorised as ‘adult’? THEY ARE, get real – Anything with even the slightest sex content gay or otherwise IS ADULT and has nothing to do with ‘censorship’, but the majority of customers NOT buying them and have to be classified somehow and therefore don’t appear front page. Why should they be exempt suddenly? Why do you think to warrant ratings exemption and be included in ‘mainstream’ publications, when it’s NOT mainstream? Sex in the eye of the ‘public majority’ IS ADULT and the GLBT scene is even smaller than any other ‘romantic’ genre classified as ‘adult’ just the same, in contrast to any other customer community and these books aren’t invisible suddenly. I haven’t seen any of them having ‘disappeared’. None whatsoever. Author > title, voila. Simple.

    And why so adamant on rejecting their ‘apologies’ or possible tech issues explanations? Amazon would be really daft to have done this ‘deliberately’ and discriminate against the GLBT community suddenly. Even as ‘experiment’ just to see how people react. Look at the fierce backlash of the other ‘alarmist’ blogs it caused alone for ONE blog starting all this, and at STILL no real proof many simply buy as fact.

    All this great effort to ‘expose’ Amazon’s ‘dirty tricks’ is very important, and I boycott anything possible anti-gay or lesbian this and that, but as long as Amazon haven’t actually been ‘proven’ of having ‘removed’ or de-ranked any of them, I’m not going to include them on my boycott list. Show me proof – and THEN I’ll block them.

  29. #29 Pat Cahalan
    April 14, 2009

    @ Lab Lemming

    > I think that anyone who expects an instant and
    > correct answer from a enormously complex
    > corporation on a major public holiday needs
    > to stop smoking crack and go back on their
    > ADD medication.

    I do not expect instant and correct. I expect either instant and appropriate, or correct and detailed. Amazon has, thus far, provided neither.

    My analysis has nothing whatsoever to do with this particular incident; it is merely an expressed symptom of an underlying disorder. A single employee should not be able to make this sort of error without an error-checking mechanism in place. That error-checking mechanism should not permit large scale changes in production values without prior notification. This is basic IT systems design. A major corporate “disaster incident” should have a clear cut communications plan. If a “sev-1″ incident occurs, there should at the very least be existing communications boilerplate available that can easily be adapted. This is standard business 101 continuity planning.

    @ Jim

    > Patrick: I disagree. Assuming malicious agents
    > for something that has a plausible explanation
    > in terms of error *is* jumping to conspiracy
    > theories.

    The problem, Jim, is that there is always a plausible explanation in terms of error. The lack of communication in this place prevented those people who noticed the discrepancy from learning full context. I’m not saying that the LGBT, as a whole, didn’t over-react (I’m not following this story fully), I’m saying Amazon under-reacted, which led to a communications environment where conspiracy theories can grow out of control.

    Again, if a LGBT author writes an amazon customer service representative with a query about their delisting receives a reasonable explanation, they’re not going to turn around and post something to their twitter account that will be picked up by other LGBT authors, who will provide confirming anecdotes that they are having similar problems.

    If there is a ready list of recently delisted books that can be referenced by customer service representatives, the representative would easily and quickly know that something is terribly wrong, and be able to communicate that bidirectionally -> “I’m sorry, sir, but there seems to be an abnormally large number of delistings between yesterday and today, which indicates a problem with our listings database. I will pass this along to my supervisor immediately.”

    > I find it surprising that you even now
    > describe the error explanation as merely
    > “plausible”

    That is not what I said. I said neither “merely” nor “plausible”. I said: “Do I think this was a major attempt to blacklist LGBT literature? No, not really. It’s possible but unlikely” I think you’re assuming that I’m one of those conspiracy theorists out of hand.

    > and are looking for other reasons to
    > criticize Amazon.com in a “moving
    > goalposts” maneuver.

    My dear sir, I move no goalposts. The LGBT community can criticize Amazon for whatever reasons they so desire; their criticisms are not mine. My criticisms are entirely based upon three factors, all technical- or business-process related:

    * A problem like this (a single employee making an error of this magnitude) should be properly accounted for in systems design – it should be very hard for this to happen in the first place. Your Internet presence indicates you’re a security guy; the principle of least privilege applies here.

    * Since, in any complex system design, you cannot prevent all error, you should have proper checks and auditing in place to ensure that when an error of this magnitude occurs, the people that notice the error are *internal to the organization* – the customer should NEVER notice this first. Please don’t re-feed me the “Holiday Weekend” line; if you don’t plan on having people on-call at a company that relies on an international and online presence, you have problems. If you’re constrained from having an adequate response during those times, then you certainly should go back to the previous observation and forbid systems-wide changes during an appropriate window of time.

    * When all else fails, and the customer does notice an error of this magnitude before someone internal to the organization, an effective communications mechanism should already exist. By definition, you’re in a crisis… every twittery second you delay in communicating with your customer base is making the problem worse. Amazon should know this.

    > Amazon.com has already admitted that this
    > error was “embarrassing and ham-fisted”
    > and taken responsibility for it.

    No, they haven’t. Communications from the company indicating that this is the case have been published; those aren’t official company disclosures.

    Look, there are still plenty of reasons to buy from Amazon. I’m probably going to buy my next round of books from there anyway, regardless of a single incident like this one.

    But to pretend that this doesn’t represent several layers of failure in the Amazon organization is just crazy. If Amazon internal meetings are *not* buzzing with agenda items that look just like my three points above, I’ll eat my sysadmin hat.

  30. #30 Princess of the Universe
    April 14, 2009

    This is the best post I’ve read on this entire debacle yet. Thank you.

  31. #31 Matt Penfold
    April 14, 2009

    I would like to add that any organisation that makes changes to its IT systems either just before or during a major public holiday does not not have the right to to use the excuse of lack of staff over said public holiday for its failure to address the failings of the changes promptly.

    Either you make sure you have the staff and procedures in place to role back if needed, else you do not go ahead with the changes. Anything else is simple imcompetence.

    I would also ask, where are the disclaimers in best seller lists ? If Amazon where being honest they would make it clear that the best seller lists only contain items they, using criteria they refuse to divulge, have deemed suitable for all ages.

    I think what I am saying is that it is possible Amazon have been both malevalent and incompetent here. One does not preclude the other after all!

  32. #32 DeMoy
    April 14, 2009

    To finalise my own thoughts on this particular blog over this issue, all Amazon is interested in is to sell – anything, until the public actually forces them to remove certain items (like the Nazi t-shirts some time ago). So they’d be pretty dumb to remove or de-rank a certain very popular if not major category of books deliberately just because something went wrong down the ranking line for some or were ‘missing’ as some stated, since this didn’t affect GBLT books only, let’s not forget that fact. As I said, when I looked on coming across this issue, they were all there.

    But anyway, I’m done with this for now and will return to my own gay fiction writing, which I would also self-publish at any rate, and don’t really ‘need’ Amazon for that. Give them time to sort out their mess – Gods know what reallty happened, and I for one won’t boycott them until it’s been proven they did this on purpose. Which I doubt. Take care everyone and happy reading/writing.

  33. #33 Avi Rappoport
    April 14, 2009

    This post, and Pat Cahalan comment, are great. Really clear and thoughtful, much appreciated.

  34. #34 John
    April 14, 2009

    I just wanted to say, wonderful points, everyone.

    And would like to point out, one question is if this was an attempted “hack” job, then why wouldn’t Amazon just say so?

    Two reasons (among many) would be if it was admittedly a hacker exploiting the system, this empowers the hacker as usually they only run on gall, arrogance and ego.

    Second, I think the anonymous poster provides an excellent example of why not admit it (yet). If they admit it was a weakness in the system BEFORE they are sure the weakness is fixed, there are tons of people who will continually try to use the exploit while they are fixing the system. As the system is being fixed, the exploit would also evolve and resolution would become much more difficult.
    (I am also using the term hacker very loosely)

    Yes, even if they don’t admit it was a hacker, there are people who would “know” it was a hacker, or try to find out, and then attempt to exploit the issue. But obviously, without the public acknowledgment by Amazon, these numbers will be much less.

    I am not by any means saying this is the reason for anything, or what has happened. Just wanted to give common practices for that type of situation.

  35. #35 AML
    April 15, 2009

    ‘I think what I am saying is that it is possible Amazon have been both malevalent and incompetent here. One does not preclude the other after all!’

    I back Matt’s statement 100%. It seems from what Amazon has admitted (French employee made a mistake?), someone unqualified to write code was reclassifying books. This doesn’t thrill me as a consumer. The minimum I would expect from the business I give my personal credit card number to so I can buy GBLT books is adequate staff in IT, supervision during any data modification, appropriately timed project execution on the work calendar, and system checks as the implementation proceeds.

    Amazon does not need sympathizers on this matter.

  36. #36 Neuro-conservative
    April 15, 2009

    It has been more than 30 hours since Janet has posted her boycott threat, and still no update addressing the newest developments. I am OUTRAGED at this conspiracy of silence! It is not acceptable, and not explainable, that a blogger on academic sabbatical should be so delinquent! This kind of behavior has *no place* in a free society!

  37. #37 Kit Russell
    April 15, 2009

    And why on Earth should these books ‘not’ be categorised as ‘adult’? THEY ARE, get real – Anything with even the slightest sex content gay or otherwise IS ADULT

    Heather has two Mommies is a kids book. There’s no sex in it whatsoever. It was deranked anyway.

    Playboy centerfolds? (Hetero) porn stars’ memoirs? Still ranked.

    I call foul.

    Do I think that this was intentional on Amazon’s part? No. But given the assumptions it exposes, I’m not surprised that a lot of people feel less comfortable with the company than they did before.

  38. #38 Michael Ralston
    April 15, 2009

    @DeMoy: You’re an idiot.
    Heather Has Two Mommies has no sex or sexual content of any sort whatsoever in it.

    It is a children’s book. If the fact that a child character has two parents is sufficient to make a book “adult”, well, there are very very few non-adult books.

    I haven’t read any of the other delisted books (as far as I know, anyway, not having followed this in detail), but I’m quite sure that several of them are no more “adult” than the mainstream – except that they have people of a different sexual orientation than the “mainstream” books do.

  39. #39 AML
    April 15, 2009

    @ Neo-conservative, the analogy your angling for is like comparing a bowling alley to a lawyer, and it fails in principle because you’re not comparing similar things. An online blogger isn’t the same as an international company for profit.

    People have the right to ask questions on this issue, even if they didn’t agree with your impression of the situation. People can be angry at things that don’t anger you. Your way — or anyone’s ways – isn’t the one true way. But people can use their words to ask question, if they like.

  40. #40 Coturnix
    April 15, 2009

    You may be interested in Clay Shirky’s take on this.

  41. #41 Skloot
    April 15, 2009

    Sorry for sucking you in, but very glad I did! Nice post.

  42. #42 DeMoy
    April 15, 2009

    Um, hello @Michael Ralston – thanks for calling me an ‘idiot’, just for probably saying that anything with sex (in fiction) gay or otherwise is usually rated ‘adult’. AGAIN, READ IT PROPERLY! (And if you mean my second post, your insult directed at me in that case eludes me completely, since all it says is that all Amazon wanna do is sell, anything, and that I doubt they targeted GLBT books deliberately. So just to say I’m an idiot doesn’t even actually hint on ‘why’ you think so and therefore has not the slightest merit.) However, just to defend myself, I said that sex contents of any kind is rated adult as a reflection of the PUBLIC MAJORITY who see it like that, and if there’re a few missing that should be labelled adult for sex or other contents like violence but haven’t, that’s up to the seller most of all following various sources to determine that.

    No matter I myself am against any ‘tags’ per se, books or otherwise – But that sadly doesn’t work in real life, and all books for one simply need to be labelled and categorised somehow, or they can’t sell their stuff, adult labelling or not is up to THEM, apart from the fact that sometimes even the States’ legislative dictate them to up it to ‘adult’ content since Amazon is american, in case you forgot, and they’re pretty conservative in many ways just because, again, the public majority cried wolf for them to act and demand another ‘adult’ label – FACT. I for one don’t care about any labels or ranking and buy what I want – recommended or not. But some think this is important (as writer or customer) and many readers simply need some sort of rating or tag to find them if they don’t know the author/title, and has nothing to do with ‘censorship’ in my eyes (as some stated on other blogs). Fine, their right to think so.

    But just because it’s GLBT literature, many think it should be excluded, or at least not made an example of, since it might smell of discrimination when it’s rated adult ‘suddenly’. I can see their point, but personally think that’s paranoia and wouldn’t regard it like that at all, thinking they’d targeted my work suddenly (or try to make it invisible) just because it says ‘adult’ on my listing suddenly, since people who want it, will find it. In fact, this apparent de-ranking or removal of certain categories didn’t only hit GLBT books alone, let’s not forget that – (And most of all watch your words here, @Michael Ralston.) At least @Kit Russell only quoted me, though why eludes me, since I never mentioned ‘Heather has two Mommies’ at all, or that it contains adult material. (In case that was directed at me as well with your so charming demeanour not having made that clear in fact by yourself @Michael Ralston.) But if you only wanna insult other bloggers (@Michael Ralston) not even having followed this issue from the start, (!) OR in fact read any of these ‘other’ books to your own words, (!) just go somewhere else and insult more people who don’t conform to your very aggressive tone who actually HAVE read them. Or even wrote them.

    At least @John was nice to all and said: ‘I just wanted to say, wonderful points, everyone’. But that was before you (@Michael Ralston) joined in to throw insults. And what the actual issue here is in fact, (in case you never noticed (@Michael Ralston) is that many believe that Amazon did this on purpose, while I still don’t until proven ‘guilty’, since we still don’t have any real ‘proof’, and even their apologies or explanations so far have been rejected. Up to them, or to think it was more subversive than it might have been. But I for one won’t just simply follow their partly ignorant overreactions if understandable discontent, thinking they were targeted as a minority (triggered by one blogger, who in fact said he does NOT think it was malicious intent and nothing had been proven at that point at all either) only behaving in fact just like those they oppose thinking them anti-gay, or those who didn’t agree with them that it was done deliberately, barely allowing any room for errors on the part of Amazon.

    Which in fact is just as shortsighted and ignorant as those thinking GLBT folks are ‘sick’, (when in fact they actually are to think that way in my view, but is still their ‘right’ to do so). Unfortunately the community, in my eyes, simply took this issues as given fact, since apparently some books were missing or had been de-ranked suddenly – while when I joined they were all ‘back’ and therefore couldn’t agree on that part, anymore. But what I find sad is the fact that ever since then this entire mess blew out of proportions left right and centre, instead of keeping cool and stick together and went into simply accusing each other suddenly for differing opinions and ended in outright refusal of possible reasons given by Amazon as to why this happened. But that’s just me, the ‘idiot’. :-))