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Amazon

I'm on the road and don't have a lot of time for researching postings.

However, I've just yanked the sidebar of links to Amazon where you could buy my books, because of this. It appears to be politically-motivated censorship of the ugliest kind — either that, or a huge and extremely ugly cock-up — and I'll not be a party to it. More here, there and everywhere.

For a contrary take on it, see this suggestion that it's an attack by Bantown, or a similar group of very effective trolls. "It's obvious Amazon has some sort of automatic mechanism that marks a book as "adult" after too many people have complained about it. It's also obvious that there aren't too many people using this feature, as indicated by the easy availability (and search ranking) of pornography and sex toys and other seemingly "objectionable" materials, otherwise almost all of those items would have been flagged by this point. So somebody is going around and very deliberately flagging only LGBT(QQI)/feminist/survivor content on Amazon until it is unranked and becomes much more difficult to find. To the outside world, this looks like deliberate censorship on the part of Amazon, since Amazon operates the web application in question."

If it's a screw-up and Amazon fixes it, I'll restore the links; if it's deliberate, I'll find other online retailers to recommend. But I can't, in all conscience, recommend people buy my books from a bookseller while they're censoring their search results to exclude LGBT authors, intentionally or otherwise. What's next: censoring People of Colour, or political writings, or history, just because some pressure group with a hate on starts inciting their members to jump on the tag button? There's a slippery slope here, greased with the fat of self-serving justifications masquerading as a twisted morality, and Amazon have just taken a prat-fall on it.

UPDATE: Simon Bisson on how Amazon's development methods may have contributed to a clusterfuck. Patrick Nielsen Hayden talks sense. Looks like the de-listing is being carried out automatically on the basis of books' user-assigned tags — stuff tagged as "gay erotica" is being de-listed. And guess what? These tags are assigned by Amazon readers.

It looks to me like a misfeature put in place by developers who were over-optimistic about their ability to automatically exploit the wisdom of crowds, being put to use by haters/griefers/lulzers to whack on the existential foe/fuck shit up/stir up amusing trouble. There's still time for Amazon to shoot themselves in both feet with a blunderbuss by mis-handling the cleanup/apology side of things, but hopefully it's not a deliberate example of Amazon being deliberately evil (or more evil than usual, at any rate). A detailed explanation of what went wrong and why it won't happen again, along with an apology (and of course a return to the status quo ante), would do a lot to calm things down. I hope.

42 Comments

1:

Wow is that idiotic. At this point the least horrible interpretation is that their flacks are just flacks and they clumsily implemented a poorly designed blacklist system a la net nanny software.

If this really is the policy, it's a shockingly bad idea. Could it possibly make business sense (the way, eg, Wal-Mart's pop media censoring may have)? Are there enough heavy-reading homophobic censorship advocates to make up for the heavy-reading free-expression advocates who will bail? I spend about 500 quid a year at Amazon and love it. It works that little bit better than the alternative sites. Routine problems are dealt with very effectively. Even odd problems don't automatically result in disasters. But as long as this goes on I'll never shop there.

2:

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2009/04/

Here is a story on the LA Times Blog. If you read the comments in the first link to the story it would appear the UK site is unaffected only the US site. Also it only affects the main 'all department' search not a search in 'books'. It seems pretty clear to me it's a glitch with paranoid bloggers shouting conspiracy theory because.. well, that's what they do sometimes. It's all smoke in my opinion.

3:

JDC: I just updated the story. It may be a hugely effective troll attack rather than Amazon's internal activity.

4:

FWIW, this also happens on other countries' Amazon sites (like Amazon.de), but seems to be bound to the ISBN. When I look for 978-1604596168, I fail to see a sales rank, but e.g. 978-0802133342 does have a rank on both .de and .us.

5:

shm, perusing the comments on that site says that you can't even find the books, which I cannot reproduce; I find everyone just fine. Is it my German IP, or did they just not bother checking?

6:

It's happening on the UK site as well, and on other country sites, though non-English language sites are variable.

It's also patchy, hitting some editions of the same book and not others. Notably, where one edition has been slotted into a "gay" sub-category in the genre labels, and the other hasn't -- guess which one's gone?

Pulling the sales ranking affects the book in a number of ways. It doesn't show up in many of the search functions, notably the front page "all departments" search which is the one many people use. It also strips the book from "if you liked this..." and a number of other tools that make it easy to find books based on your interests.

Declaration of interest -- I write in one of the genres affected, and one of my books is on the list of the de-ranked, although as it's now out-of-print it's not going to have much effect on me personally.

7:

It is "EASTER" weekend, and the christain loonies are out in force.
Amozon staff are mostly on holiday.
My money is on a deliberate virtual flash crowd of xtians attempting to trash what their poor apologies for brains can't cope with, and making sure "teh innocent public and the CHILDREN shouldn't be told about"
And Amazon having a weak firewall (so to speak) against this sort of attack.

That's where I'd put my money, at least.
it will be interesting to see .....

8:

I saw this first at the address below

http://www.bookspotcentral.com/2009/04/amazonfail/

It seems to say that the people over at amazon do know what is going on.

The whole idea that people are so dumb they can't make up their own mind about the kind of material they should read is incredibly insulting.

Not that I buy books from Amazon anyway, I won't even be tempted to until we hear what this is all about.

Censorship, prohibition, why do people think they will work?

9:

I find a lot of merit in the suggestion that it's an organised attack against Amazon for lulz. Amazon's rating and review system is a wonderful marketing tool and in the past it's been only been abused on a small scale (as far as we know). If this is the first major attack it's unlikely to be the last.

10:

It doesn't matter which group is gaming the system here (the religious right or Bantown or...), they seem to have exposed some serious flaws in Amazon's automated processes. I think its scalability and monpolist problem and now that it has been exposed its going to be a bugger for amazon to fix properly without spending an awlful lot of money on hiring new human overseers.

11:

This is why we MUST remember the power of the mob ... if you tag it, someone will reject/praise it ... the knife cuts both ways, so if you want to use social ranking tools, you need to remember their impact.

Let's hope it was a troll exploit.

12:

I am all set to buy a eBook reader. It was between Sony and Kindle, with a netbook as a third option (I far prefer 10.5 ounces to nearly 3 pounds, though.)

This foulup has thrown the balance to Sony. Or else to a wait-and-see policy.

13:

I suspect someone is gaming the system. It is apparently pretty easy to do: all Charlie would need to do to have nothing but 5-star ratings on his books is have his loyal fans rate as "objectionable" any review that was less than 5 stars. Enough objections and the review is pulled, apparently without human interference.

James Nicoll blogged about this in connection with a Romance writer/publisher a few months ago.

14:

Thanks for taking a stand Charlie.

15:

I'd go for a deliberate attack that is based on gaming the system to suppress material as the most likely explanation for this - and I seriously doubt it's /b/-tards doing it for the lulz. It stinks far more of the same kind of crowd as constitute the LGF/Freeper wingnuts.

The various groups of the kultural kristian kookery that constitute the reactionary reich have been pulling these kinds of stunts for well over a decade now and their locust horde swarming techniques can be very, very effective due the honing of them over the years. Plus, Amazon's system for managing this kind of thing has always been appallingly lacking. Given the nature of the material that is being suppressed they definitely would be the most likely suspects.

Remember that these people will never accept that they lost the Culture Wars, but they at least could claim that they had won economically. Now that their beloved economic paradigm has been thoroughly shredded, I'd expect these kinds of cultural assaults to get worse as well.

The real concern has to be transitory marriages of convenience between the Amerikkkan reactionary reich and those of other neo-fundamentalist persuasions where they form mesh networks with the specific intent of doing a DDOS assault on their hated "Lie-beral" culture predicated on the basis that my enemies enemy is my friend. And make no mistake, they do view us as nothing less than the hated enemy.

16:

A friend of mine, who is an ex-Amazon employee, has perspective that may prove useful here.

17:

Someone taking credit in a way that seems entirely too probable, and inventing a whole new definition for the term gay-bashing: http://community.livejournal.com/brutal_honesty/3168992.html

18:

See http://community.livejournal.com/brutal_honesty/3168992.html for someone who claims it's all his fault.

19:

See http://community.livejournal.com/brutal_honesty/3168992.html for someone who claims it's all his fault. I have no idea if it's true or not.

I _am_ finding all this knee-jerking to be a little tiresome; wait until the facts are in. I'm coming to the conclusion that "foo-fail" is a nice short-cut for "go down the pub while people get outraged yet again".

20:

It just doesn't pass the sniff test for being a deliberate act on the part of Amazon. They make a huge amount of money off of the LGBT market and they've never shown an ounce of hostility towards it.

It seems likely that it's either 1) An external exploit, 2) internal sabotage by an employee with a personal agenda or 3) an actual glitch.

I'm doubtful that it's just a glitch given that it seems to be rather narrow in effect, so my money is on 1 or 2, although I'm not sure which is more probable.

In any case, Amazon has already stated that this is not their policy and they seem to be making a good faith effort to fix the problem. I think I'm willing to cut them a bit of slack, this time.

21:

Apologies for the double post; I thought I'd caught the premature "post" from happening before hand (since the web page took a long time to respond). Guess not. Sorry!

22:

Well said, Charlie.

I actually think it is just an accidental screw-up (and I don't use Amazon anyway, because real bookshops are actually more convenient where I live), but if it is an accident it's still important to make it clear to Amazon and others that doing this deliberately would be costly.

23:

An interesting aside from a fellow-traveller at Eastercon: this is the perfect 'disgruntled employee' attack. It would be very easy for a priveleged insider to extract the tags for LGBT content and write a script to flag them all.

Nevertheless, wingnuts are the likely culprit. It's too specific, it miraculously passes over the approved texts on renouncing gayness and returning to God, and it picks up stuff like EM Forster's Maurice that probably wouldn't have any tags for LGBT content: someone had to know.

What next?

I agree that Amazon should have forseen and prevented this misuse of a necessary and desirable adult-flagging and complaints procedure.

Further, the effect of the flag - a form of censorship with a serious potential effect on sales ('If you liked this...' is disabled) rather than a warning label that can be picked up by childsafe browser filters - is far more than a technical failure: it reflects badly on Amazon's management that they decided to handle objections to material in this way.

Or, perhaps, they didn't decide to do it deliberately. Which forces us to the conclusion that an online retailer's board of directors are technically-clueless or utterly remote from the operations of their business: not only did they not know, but they could not know that such a risk existed.

It is, of course, entirely possible that Amazon's management are homophobic wingnuts. Not, admittedly, likely: but it's not unreasonable to draw such a conclusion from the evidence.

24:

"It's happening on the UK site as well, and on other country sites, though non-English language sites are variable."

FWIW, I just tested Amazon France and there seem to be no comparable policy to keep French language books with GLBT themes from the general search, even in the YA section.

25:

Thanks for the update Charlie. A DDOS-esque attack does seem plausible. It will be interesting to see how Amazon responds. Some sort of "unusual activity" filter which will in turn be gamed I bet. It was also useful to, once again, have my nose rubbed in the perils of assuming. Can't help but wonder how many other vulnerabilities for griefers to exploit exist.

26:

Hello Charlie. I just want to congratulate you for your decision of fighting censorship even if it means less revenue of your books. Actions like it has become almost extinct in our post-modern world.

Regarding Amazon... that's what I'd call "cagada enorme" because who'll trust a bookstore that censors books? Perhaps they intend to become resellers of self-help books (like "The Secret") or a store specialized in "politically correct all family literature".

Regarding to the atheist that likes xtian and other ridiculous acronyms... atheist dictatorial regimes censor books daily basis.

27:

There were reports earlier that the German site was seeing it, but only on the English language books, and that on the French site it could depend on whether you searched using English spellings or French spellings.

Some of the rankings are being restored now.

It looks as if whatever happened may well have been working off the category metadata. Thus if there's anything in the metadata indicating "gay & lesbian", or "erotica", it gets hit, but if it's "erotic photography" as in the Playboy books that have been cited as examples of straight erotica that didn't get hit, it's missed by the filter.

So the extent of the filtering is probably not malicious as far as Amazon as a company is concerned, but I'm still Not Happy about there being a mandatory and hidden filter system in the first place. Not least because it does offer opportunities for abuse, whether by individual employees, or by a change in direction at th top.

28:

One of the links, the bantown one, reminds me of a non-trolling post by Terry Austin, which I seem to be unable to groups-google, in which he describes some great-old-ones kind of group of ancient trolls who used to do the same thing (i.e. get previously uninvolved and peaceful groups X and Y to fight each other for lulz, only the probably didn't call it "lulz" back then) to newsgroups. For some reason, ISTR the word 'linguistic' or 'linguistics' being important. But my google-fu is weak and I should go to sleep.

Anyway. To me, the meta-troll thing seems quite likely. But I'm an armchair-analyst.

29:

Charlie and all the others who are so irate: Read the non-irate posts here.

We are all experiencing the deep downside of 24/7/Instant news. To wit, 24/7/Instant overreaction.

It's important that all of us who are immersed in the Intertoobies learn to stand a little back in order to see what's really going on.

For a reasonably well rounded discussion of this story, listen to Buzz Out Loud #951 (13 April 2009):
http://reviews.cnet.com/buzz-out-loud-podcast/

Patience people. Please!

Rick York - geezergeek

30:

Reddit posted the supposed code used by Weev to troll Amazon. Which can be found here. The reddit thread here, and the Valleywag story here.

Trolls do exist, the just live on teh net.

31:

Casimero @24: dictatorial regimes are seldom atheist -- the only obvious exceptions, the Leninist states, seem to have been theocracies run by a secular religion using atheism as a stalking-horse rather than actual regimes based on a rejection of eschatological programs.

32:

#26: You're thinking of alt.syntax.tactical back in the Usenet heyday.

33:

well, this was an interesting read. lots of theory about cause and some clear definitions of effects. didn't know the first thing about this prior t oreading the post from Charles. i've read a couple of the links and it certainly seems that Amazon have a feckload of negative press going on over an easter weekend.
i can't help but wonder if the overall simplification into singular causes is an expression of niavete.
i don't for a minute begin to think i have a handle on it but this last 24 hours appears to have been the Mob all shouting at once. If i was at amazon i'd be battenning down the hatches and making big moves to lock down the mass media so it stays in the relatively small pond that is the internet. they could get seriously hurt if it goes down that route. not to negate the actions of the internet populace, i applaud the passion this has been addressed with, if a little to feverishly in some quarters.. it appears to have taken on a life of it's own with periferal parties staking their own claim against the media turf. such is teh internet.
i don't like what i read about what is happening with amazon and in the unlikely event i come to buy some books on the internet, it'll be from elsewhere. this is nothing new however. i like bookshops. it's where i go for my fix.
it sucks that people will suffer from what has become a de facto sales guideline created by the pervasive scale of amazon's function within the publishing world. if you need a ranking system to function, what loon would entrust that function to a corporate entity which appears to be regarded with a 'better the devil we know' attitude at best? yes they offer a very effective service but their less-than-bomb-proof systems should not be the standard against which the success of a publication is set.
a work being de-listed from the ratings and how that could affect it's potential for sale is clearly apparent. how a corporate entity of that size could fail to spot either some external site/stats gaming or an internal SNAFU of truly grand proportions given it's proximity to a large chunk of very active internet denizens is scary. but not unheard of. there have been countless examples of the fail-spiral type decision process applied at a corporate level where execs have just not thought through the eventual outcome of what the job in front of them will entail.
whatever the outcome is found to be, there will be a bunch of change that happens. we could do with thinking about the abstracts that underly the situation.

34:

Or it could just be a miscoding that blew up on a freaking Easter Sunday when almost noone was in the office.

I understand why people got annoyed. I don't understand the impatience. YOU DIDN'T FIX IT IN 5 MINUTES AND EXPLAIN TO ME PERSONALLY WHY YOU ARE A BIGOT.

Halting State drops lower on my to be read list. I'll give my reading time to authors who are a little more level-headed and don't jump to conclusions.

35:

King Rat @32

Don't put off reading Halting State because of this; it's a good book and I expect you'll enjoy it!

36:

Can you say, "Tempest in a Teapot" ???

37:

@29: I'm no fan of Christianity or Islam, especially in their theocratic modes; I've been an atheist since shortly after my ninth birthday (more precisely, that's when I realized I was an atheist; I don't know how long before that I was "speaking prose without knowing it"). And I can see the case for regarding Marxism as the fourth great prophetic religion (or maybe the fifth, if you include Zarathustra as a founding prophet).

But even so . . . saying that the Soviet Union, or the PRoC, or North Korea, doesn't count as an atheist dictatorship that engages in censorship, because they're Marxist, and Marxism is a theocratic belief system, strikes me as excluding uncomfortable cases by convenient redefinition. Even if Marxism is a "theocracy," it's an atheist "theocracy," and thus an example of atheists engaged in censorship. That they held to their atheism as an article of religious dogma is unusual but doesn't change its substance.

Or, to borrow Anthony Flew's best joke:

"No Scotsman takes sugar on his porridge."
"But I visited Jock M'Gregor last Wednesday and I saw him shoveling it right on."
"No TRUE Scotsman takes sugar on his porridge."

Every group has its embarrassing members. SF fans have filkers and furries and people who are credulous about fringe science. Libertarians have the Ron Paul crowd. And atheists are no exception. (I'm limiting this to groups I belong to; I've never been a socialist, so I won't nominate anyone as an embarrassment to that group . . . but I'll bet you can come up with a couple.)

38:

If it's true that the deranking blitz is due to external actors it would be good to know whether they did it for the lulz or because they shorted Amazon stock and are now cashing in.
If it is the latter then my copy of 'Halting State' is getting increasingly obsolete.

39:

Seeing as I actually used to live in California and had the whole "LGBT" rammed into my living room on a 24/7 basis courtesy of political correctness, I personally find this topic as boring as Wired magazine having just discovered "The Settlers of Catan" years after it's publication... Both the magazine and the LGBT movement are old, tired, and hardly worth more than a passing mention anymore.

Nothing to say about this?
http://cnnwire.blogs.cnn.com/2009/04/10/att-offers-reward-for-cut-cables/

Union backlash for working without a contract, or simple vandalism? Conjecture away. The above article is surprising short on details, given the fact that more than a single cable was cut.

40:

@ 35 DEAD WRONG
The "communist" states are classic theocracies.
They have "holy books" which are an ifallible guide.
The "holy predictions" are also infallible, and so is the church (the Party) even when it is manfestly not so.
[ The classic, of course is that "the revolution" will occur in the MOST DEVELOPED states FIRST ... ]
They persecute, with equal vigour, heretics (that is believers in other forms of communism) and beleievers in other, competeing religions.
At one point, they even joined christianity and islam in rejecting a central foundation of modern biology - ever heard of Trofim Lysenko?
They kill thousands/millions of unbelievers and evil people, in order to bring a perfect world about...
In short, the whole thing is modelled on the medieaval RC church ......

41:

@38: I don't think you read what I actually said. I wasn't disagreeing with the classification of Marxism as a religious movement, or of communist states as theocracies; I was disagreeing with the claim that that meant that they were not atheistic. To quote my original words, "Even if Marxism is a "theocracy," it's an atheist "theocracy," and thus an example of atheists engaged in censorship. That they held to their atheism as an article of religious dogma is unusual but doesn't change its substance."

The fact is that just about every human belief can be made the basis for ugly behavior. For any group of people who believe X to say, "But none of us X believers would ever do anything like that!" is at best overoptimistic.

42:

Thorne @39: consider me not terribly amused. Here's a hint: I live in the middle of the "pink triangle" in Edinburgh, i.e. the gay capital of Scotland. Some of Lots of my friends have been on the receiving end of homophobic invective and violence. It's a very real issue as far as I'm concerned, not "political correctness gone mad" as the Daily Mail would have it. If you don't want to read about it, go read someone else's blog.

@41: communism isn't intrinsically atheist; it's just that the theocrats/ideologies saw all other religions as competitors with their own holy cause, and adopted atheism as a convenient stalking horse for a crack-down. Atheism doesn't lead to communism, or even vice versa -- you're pointing to a correlation but there's no underlying causation until you examine the interesting dynamics of a secular evangelical religion with a big god-shaped hole in it.

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