Amazon goes crazy, banishes books with queer content to "adult" purgatory -- UPDATED

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67 Responses to “Amazon goes crazy, banishes books with queer content to "adult" purgatory -- UPDATED”

  1. Pip_R_Lagenta says:

    I complained to Amazon yesterday, when I first heard about this. I used Amazon’s standard customer service “Contact Us” system. I received back an email saying: “Thanks for contacting us. We recently discovered a glitch in our systems and it’s being fixed.”

    While that is not very informative, it is, in fact, more informative than I was expecting.

  2. Takuan says:

    glitch, exploit, executive stupidity or even corporate malice, the important thing is a lot of people stood up and SNARLED.

  3. Anonymous says:

    #4:

    Likely the cover-up amounts to a bunch of hired drones working for the PR-department who have a script with answers to various questions and little-to-no information about what’s actually going on anywhere else in the company.

    So they get hit with a question that they don’t know the answer to and give some generic response from their list of responses that leaves nobody happy.

  4. Robert says:

    Many boingboing readers are science fiction devotees. If you know of any science fiction book that has any kind of sexual scene in it, no matter how badly written, write to Amazon and ask them to put all editions of that book in the adult room. Optionally, explain that “kids might read it”.

    I think this will probably get us into the second or third step in the “Then they came for the…” plan. We’ll see if the big publishers start complaining.

  5. Glenn Fleishman says:

    I worked at Amazon many moons ago as the head of the catalog department (an odd position), and had a lot of intimate dealings with the search engine that found stuff on the site. Now, I’m sure the architecture of the back-end is entirely different 12 years after I left, although I still see cruft that appears familiar at times. (It may be backward compatible cruft.)

    Amazon had a not-invented-here syndrome in its early days, coupled with the fact that very little software (open source or commercial) was designed in 1995-1997 to be highly optimized for huge numbers of live queries. That was why Amazon went with Oracle on the database side, and why we used a variety of open-source and free software combined with in-house tools to make something that generally worked when other ecommerce sites’ tools often didn’t (or were dog slow).

    The Amazon system, however updated and streamlined, was highly idiosyncratic, and I suspect Patrick’s explanation is fairly close to the truth.

    While it would be nice if Amazon would release a full statement–”An editor clicked the wrong box and lumped a whole category of stuff in a whole wrong category and we’ll make sure that can’t happen again”–a glitch is probably accurate. Human error or odd systems.

  6. Moriarty says:

    I can’t imagine this being a policy they’ll stick with for very long, just because it is so obviously going to piss so many people off. Probably the suggested sequence of events is not far off, and hopefully it’s already being sorted out, after its been brought to the attention of some presumably more rational higher-ups. A “glitch,” indeed.

    One question, though: “CIVLIB?”

  7. dbarak says:

    Emailed to Amazon’s Investor Relations department (ir@amazon.com):

    “Good morning homophobes!

    I’ll be selling my stock today. Thanks.”

  8. homehive says:

    It’s their business. They are there to make a profit, not to lead the vanguard of social change. The mentioned books are still available. The web search parameters just need to be adjusted. There is no need so obsessive about imagined but non-existent slights.

  9. Xopher says:

    Yes, Moriarty, CIVLIB. “Censorship” by delisting by Amazon or by the unnamed troll conspirators.

    The word ‘censorship’ is in quotes above because it’s not really censorship…it’s Amazon deciding what they want on their own site, and how they want to display it. (Or, if the troll conspirators are responsible, it’s the equivalent of breaking into a bookstore and throwing all the books you don’t like on the ground in a heap.)

    And then, of course, the reaction of the public in going elsewhere for books, since Amazon has lost the book-buying public’s trust* by what they’ve done.

    *I think they may get it back if they fix the problem quickly and explain in detail what happened, but right now…no trust.

  10. Graham Anderson says:

    The silence from Amazon is what’s helping to fan the flames of the twitferno. If Amazon had a blog, then we wouldn’t have to rely on the only two quotes from the company. Quote 1 in a blog, where some CSR says that there is indeed a policy that “adult” items are being de-ranked keep search clean, and then Quote 2 from the PR person saying “its a glitch”. On Channel 4 News (UK) tonight they’re supposed to be covering the story, but will there be an Amazon spokesdroid to impart any information, or will it be yet more rumour and conjecture?

  11. treq says:

    Here’s more info about the hack which is claimed for causing all this:

    http://pastebin.ca/1390576

  12. Anonymous says:

    @9,

    I worked at Amazon for two and a half years, up until this January. Their not-invented-here syndrome is at least as bad as it has ever been. The corporate culture at Amazon is deeply afraid of outsourcing almost any work at all. The problems this creates are compounded by the fact that Amazon
    – 1) has few centralized corporate initiatives and is generally a decentralized network of ideas; and
    – 2) has a curiously high turnover rate.

    I am one thousand percent on the side of those who say that offending *anybody* was the opposite of Amazon’s intent. Scenarios like the one described in Cory’s post are the rule at Amazon, not the exception.

    Amazon’s great strength is its understanding that customer happiness is equal to money. In my experience I saw Jeff Bezos bend over backwards countless times to please anyone who voiced a complaint, which pretty much always involved a large group of people dropping higher-value/longer-term work to fix it.

  13. Anonymous says:

    After hearing from people on the inside at Amazon, I am convinced it was in fact, a “glitch.”

    Well, more like user error–some idiot editing code for one of the many international versions of Amazon mixed up the difference between “adult” and “erotic” and “sexuality”. All the sites are tied together, so editing one affected all for blacklisting, and ta-da, you get this situation.

    The CS rep who responded that this was Amazon policy was just confused about what they were talking about, and gave standard boilerplate about porn.

    The dumbest part is saying it was a “glitch”. A “glitch”? Just say that it was one of your workers making an editing error. Really dumb PR move, that one.

    I worked at Amazon back in the day, and wrote a book about the experience.

  14. Moriarty says:

    @Xopher: Sorry, but I still don’t see what that has to do with civil liberties.

  15. Connie H. says:

    Note that it was a three day weekend throughout most of the US, and the Twitsunami that gathered was through Easter day and into Easter night — not the best time to get the Marketing and Promotions people mobilized and probably have to get several upper management types to sign off on any statement, and et cetera.

    I’m surprised that I haven’t seen any mention of an Amazon spokesperson official speaking yet — it’s about 10 AM Seattle time now, so presumably they’ve had enough time to at least get the emergency department meeting(s) started.

  16. Auto Parts for Brains says:

    This is just them informing parents that for some of these books, some adult explanation may be needed.

  17. Antinous / Moderator says:

    This is just them informing parents that for some of these books, some adult explanation may be needed.

    On behalf of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people everywhere, would you mind not making us sound like a disease that needs to be carefully explained so that little Susie won’t be traumatized by our existence?

  18. markfrei says:

    So I did an Amazon search for an admittedly adult (but artistic) gay photo book I modeled for. My book didn’t come up at all, even with an exact title entered – but “Girls Gone Wild” came up on the first page of results even though the title has no words in common.

    My other books don’t show up either, but at least the search isn’t doing the double insult of turning up straight porn while suppressing exact match gay art.

    Given the amount of money I spend at Amazon I’ll be looking for other places to shop moving forward, at least until they unwind this and apologize.

    I’m not big on supporting booksellers that have this mentality.

  19. Glaurung_quena says:

    While I think the first half of PNH’s theory is correct, I think the second half is could just as well be chalked up to the political/religious views of one or two employees as to institutional stupidity.

    IOW, I suspect it wasn’t a “software glitch” or a “corporate stupidity glitch” so much as a “personnel glitch.”

  20. Takuan says:

    Parts, have you EVER in your life had to explain yourself?

  21. Mike Daisey says:

    After hearing from people on the inside at Amazon, I am convinced it was in fact, a “glitch.”

    Well, more like user error–some idiot editing code for one of the many international versions of Amazon mixed up the difference between “adult” and “erotic” and “sexuality”. All the sites are tied together, so editing one affected all for blacklisting, and ta-da, you get this situation.

    The CS rep who responded that this was Amazon policy was just confused about what they were talking about, and gave standard boilerplate about porn.

    The dumbest part is saying it was a “glitch”. A “glitch”? Just say that it was one of your workers making an editing error. Really dumb PR move, that one.

    Let me know if you actually want more details on how it went down, but it’s pretty boring and technical.

    md

  22. Xopher says:

    Moriarty, that’s OK. You’re welcome to participate here without a full understanding of why the Boingers make every single tagging choice.

  23. Xopher says:

    Well, MarkFrei, now you’ve gone and made me curious (all the other phrasings were FAILs of one kind or another). What book? I promise I won’t buy it from Amazon.

  24. Moriarty says:

    There’s no need to be snippy, I’m just making a suggestion. Untag as “civlib” (since it actually has nothing to do with civil liberties) and tag as “fuck up” or “dumb,” either or both of which would be accurate.

    I understand how it might come across as needlessly nitpicky pedantry. I mean, who cares about tags, right? But I still think it’s worthwhile mentioning, since it goes to the heart of what “civil liberty” actually means, which is something most boingers seem to care a lot about. It’s not just “not really” censorhip, it is NOT censorship, and that should be important to anyone who worries about actual censorship.

  25. Brainspore says:

    The dumbest part is saying it was a “glitch”. A “glitch”? Just say that it was one of your workers making an editing error. Really dumb PR move, that one.

    They probably chose that wording because “glitch” doesn’t put so much pressure on Amazon to fire some poor bastard for making a stupid mistake. “Editing error” sounds like they appointed a homophobe as a senior editor.

    I can see how someone might assume something tagged with the word “sexuality” belonged in the realm of “adult” material if it was robbed of all other context (such as the fact that the book shown above is clearly intended for children).

  26. Takuan says:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_liberties

    consider that a government that does not act to protect your civil liberties – and right to sexual self-determination is a civil liberty – is failing in its duties if it does not sanction a private business that violates those rights. Imagine if Amazon restricted books by religion of characters?

  27. allen says:

    so it would seem
    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_gw?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=homosexual&x=0&y=0

    I doubt that it was really an effort on the part of amazon to advance some conservative moral agenda, but I don’t know how much to trust the claims that it was an elaborate social engineering exercise.

    In either event, it’s kind of fun (in a macabre way) to imagine a future in which there are viral PR firms that specialize in drawing fire from these kinds of gaffes by disseminating plausible excuses through seemingly legitimate channels.

  28. Jenonymous says:

    Dudes. Not a hack. Mr. “Look at me I’m a Douche’s” code only filters out books about homosexuality, but books about rape survival and sex w/disabilities were also borked.

    No, the blame for this fiasco rests with Amazon.

  29. Moriarty says:

    (Assuming for the sake of argument that it’s an intentional and permanent policy, and not a “glitch.”)

    I don’t think it would be violating your right to sexual self-determination, Takuan. Any more than the brick and mortar bookstore that puts Danielle Steele novels on display tables but keeps medical textbooks on a high shelf in a back room is violating my rights by preventing me from becoming a doctor.

  30. Anonymous says:

    Amazon first responded to authors saying it’s done on purpose…removing adult content….so WTF why r they changing it now…next they’ll pay off fox news and FOx will broadcast arresting a fake hacker for it….GET REAL!http://tinyurl.com/d6plhj

  31. Brettspiel says:

    Not a glitch, a hack.

  32. Brettspiel says:

    If you believe the troll.

  33. Ian Holmes says:

    course, they could just be following the party line…

  34. Takuan says:

    they gave santorum a grand?

  35. allen says:

    Moriarity- I think a more accurate metaphor would be a bookstore having nothing but Richard Dawkins on the display tables, and keeping a bible on a high shelf in the back room as a means of preventing one from being a christian.

  36. legionseagle says:

    Auto Parts for Brains: given that the titles affected included Foucault’s [i]History of Human Sexuality[/i], Dr. Nathaniel Frank’s [i] Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America [/i]Rictor Norton [i]Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830 [/i] and Epistemology of the Closet by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, I certainly think [i]some[/i] adult explanation might be needed if children got their hands on them. The explanation which springs to mind is, “Looking for porn on the Internet? Ur doin it rong.”

  37. Anonymous says:

    This what people will make fun of, 40 years from now, if they look back at our strange, prude times.

  38. Moriarty says:

    Ok, why would that be a violation of anyone’s civil liberties? Seems like the real violation would be in passing a law requiring Dawkinsworld to put out a few Bibles.

  39. Antinous / Moderator says:

    So can I take it that you believe Richard Dawkins’ personal website should be required by law to sell Bibles (and every other religious text) in addition to his own books?

    You’re making it sound like commenters are clamoring for government regulation when, in fact, commenters have suggested e-mails, boycotts and selling off stock as forms of protest. It almost seems as if you’re trying to shut people up.

  40. Takuan says:

    well, I guess you’ll just have to sit at the back of the bus for awhile until you figure that out.

    @22, interesting, seems plausible griefer work, anyone able to prove it? If it’s that simple Amazon, has deep problems.

  41. John Coulthart says:

    Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener:

    “This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.

    “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.

    “Many books have now been fixed and we’re in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.

    http://blog.seattlepi.com/amazon/archives/166329.asp

  42. allen says:

    My understanding is that civil liberties are “fundamental rights” that must be “protected”, from the government, and from the tyranny of the majority. So the question really is whether or not the number 1 bookseller promoting a sense of shame and guilt around the fundamental right of sexual self-determination is sufficient threat to the right that protection is merited.

  43. Anonymous says:

    amazon.ca + homosexuality = still ok

  44. Takuan says:

    Update: 3:30 p.m.:

    So what happened?

    Former Amazonian Mike Daisey offers some insight.

    “After hearing from people on the inside at Amazon, I am convinced it was in fact, a ‘glitch,’” he says on his Web site. “Well, more like user error–some idiot editing code for one of the many international versions of Amazon mixed up the difference between ‘adult’ and ‘erotic’ and ‘sexuality.’ All the sites are tied together, so editing one affected all for blacklisting, and ta-da, you get the situation.”

    According to Daisey’s inside sources, “A guy from Amazon France got confused on how he was editing the site, and mixed up ‘adult,’ which is the term they use for porn, with stuff like ‘erotic’ and ‘sexuality.’ That browse node editor is universal, so by doing that there he affected ALL of Amazon.”

    (I learned of this via The Stranger and Lilith Saintcrow)

    Daisey has written a book about his experience working at Amazon, titled, “21 Dog Years: A Cube Dweller’s Tale.”

    Amazon has not confirmed to me whether Daisey’s synopsis is accurate, but it’s the only explanation hanging out there as of 3:30 p.m. on Monday.

  45. Moriarty says:

    “well, I guess you’ll just have to sit at the back of the bus for awhile until you figure that out.”

    So can I take it that you believe Richard Dawkins’ personal website should be required by law to sell Bibles (and every other religious text) in addition to his own books?

    (Thanks, incidentally, for simultaneously dodging the actual question, insinuating I’m stupid, and comparing my argument to a defense of Jim Crow institutions.)

  46. mdh says:

    CIVLIB, as in, “exercise your…”.

    See dbarak, above. Discuss freely.

  47. Moriarty says:

    @Allen: I don’t know. That seems like it might be the seed of a rational argument, though. What significance would the fact that Amazon is the number one bookseller have?

  48. Takuan says:

    now don’t get uppity Moriarty, we understand your kind can’t always grasp the higher concepts as readily as us. Haven’t we always treated you good?

    OK, I’ll stop now, but you have to agree it’s really annoying, don’t you? I really feel that in this case you are being wilfully blind. Amazon isn’t a speciality vendor with a chosen narrow inventory (like a bible store). When they discriminate it’s perilously close to public transit operated by private companies limiting ridership by race.

  49. allen says:

    @31 One way in which it might be significant is in determining the magnitude of threat (and therefore whether or not it is a big enough threat to merit protecting the liberty).

  50. Anonymous says:

    Regardless of the the means they don’t justify the outcome. And, dear god, I never thought I would use that cliche in an applicable manner w/o smirking.

    And Moriarty if you think that Dawkins’ website is in any way comparable to Amazon (really lazy analogy) then I think you’ve decided this debate is not really interesting to you anymore.

    btw-BOING BOING, please post the outcome of this, I need to know. Anyway, Amazon, like eBay, has become really awkward and strange in its usefulness.

  51. Anonymous says:

    Why not support your local, independent bookstore?
    F* Amazon.

  52. Stephen says:

    They screwed up. They admitted they screwed up. However, instead of undoing what they did, they seem to be trying to do what they meant to do, but correctly , before they fix anything. This is a problem because what they meant to do is nearly impossible to actually do and meanwhile we are stuck with a very bad situation. Heather has Two Mommies is derated, but New York Girls by Richard Kern is not. That’s an untenable state of affairs and they are losing trust, credibility and future sales every hour that that situation persists.

  53. Takuan says:

    right now, at this very instant, somewhere, the government that I currently do the most business with (first passport held) is engaged in the torture of a human being either in a prison or some secret operation. I have exactly the same security and rights as that person currently losing some meat and years of his or her life. If they can do it to anyone, they can do it to me. As you do to the least among you, ye also do to me.

    Rights not jealously and aggressively guarded become “privileges”. Privileges can be taken.

  54. Moriarty says:

    Takuan, I certainly agree it’s annoying, especially inasmuch as I would feel obligated to boycott Amazon, which is otherwise a very convenient vendor. I just don’t think that it violates my civil liberties, and I don’t think that it would be right for the law to intervene.

    The difference between this and blacks being sent to the back of the bus is, for one thing, that Amazon is nowhere near the monopoly of a municipal bus company. And second, they’re not even treating their customers differently based on their sexuality! At most, it’s an insult to non-heterosexuals, by unevenly categorizing those subjects as obscene. But it’s not as if homosexuals pay different amounts, have access to different material (even “separate but equal” products), or anything else. They get the same service. And I strongly believe that we, private citizens, do not have a right to be protected from anything we deem to be an insult from another private entity – even very large private entities. Aside from being pointlessly restrictive, that road quickly turns to absurdity, as it shouldn’t be difficult to imagine.

  55. jmcnichols says:

    At most, it’s an insult to non-heterosexuals, by unevenly categorizing those subjects as obscene.

    I see where you’re coming from, Moriarty, re: the exact place for human decency in regulating business, but please don’t imply that I as a “hetero” should not be equally offended, for any number of reasons, including CIVLIB.

  56. Xopher says:

    Just like to point out that something VERY strange is going on…as mentioned in the discussion for the linked post, disability-oriented books with no sexual content at all were also deranked.

  57. Takuan says:

    I’ve been the victim of run-away political correctness too. It’s about as pretty as racism and the other major social crimes.

    Patrick summation at the referenced article says it best:
    “None of which means that anyone shouldn’t be mad at Amazon, or that Amazon shouldn’t be embarrassed. Rather, it means that this is how the world works. A great deal of racism, homophobia, etc., happens not because anyone particularly wants to be racist or homophobic, but because the ground has been tilted that way by arrangements made long ago and if you’re not constantly on the lookout it’s easiest to roll downhill.”

  58. gnp says:

    I wonder how the list of un-ranked books compares to the American Library Association’s list of frequently-challenged books.

  59. platypism says:

    There’s another pretty valid theory for how this failboat sank: http://tehdely.livejournal.com/88823.html

    I have a hard time believing a company would alienate such a huge chunk of its buyers so quickly. Of course, until they fix this, I’m going to continue to bitch about it. Other “undesirable” books that have been deranked now include feminist and feminist theory books as well as books on rape and rape survival. You know, because it needs to be more difficult for rape survivors to gain access to materials that may help them.

  60. Moriarty says:

    Yeah, I’m “hetero” myself, and as I said, I would feel obligated to boycott if I thought this was more than a temporary fart by some midlevel cog. I don’t know how I would phrase it otherwise, though.

  61. John Coulthart says:

    Unnamed Amazon rep says it wasn’t a glitch, Deanna Zandt still reckons it was a hacking exploit:

    http://www.feministing.com/archives/014797.html

  62. Anonymous says:

    I hope they added the bible.

  63. jjasper says:

    Repeat after me –

    it’s not the crime, it’s the cover up.

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