Amazon Says Error, Not Hacker, De-Ranked Gay Books

Amazon released a statement late today offering more explanation of an error they say caused the removal of sales rankings for hundreds of books, many of them gay and lesbian themed, over the weekend.

Amazon Said the company in a statement:

"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."

Earlier on Monday, a known hacker claimed responsibility for the event, saying he exploited a vulnerability in the tools visitors use to rate products.

The hacker's confession. Is it plausible? Perhaps.

The entire event was notable for Twitter's role in it. As Sam Machkovech at Slog notes: "Twitter's the closest thing consumers and average users have gotten to
creating an online riot in a long time. Yesterday, after typing
#amazonfail into the search, packed lists filled the screen with posts
all seconds apart, and screen refreshes kept 'em
coming. This was before any mainstream media had jumped on the story.
no less. Twitter's combination of brevity, semi-anonymity, and topic
tracking is ripe for social tidal waves like yesterday's."

Comments

  1. InspectHis Gadget says

  2. liz templin says

    geez, this whole thing is exhausting. was it hacked? was it an error? get a few good writers, i’m sure we could make this a suspense novel or something.

  3. crispy says

    The hacker Weev was profiled by the New York Times last year. He’s a scumbag, a liar, and a notorious internet troll. Yet I still think he did this.

    Of course Amazon is not going to admit that their precious ecommerce system was vulnerable to a hack.

  4. Paul R says

    I could very easily see angry evangelicals, with too much time on their hands and bitter over the same-sex marriage victories of recent weeks, deciding to screw with Amazon on Easter weekend. The timing is next to perfect.

    Basically I don’t see how Amazon would benefit from doing this. They called themselves on the carpet, referring to this as embarrassing and ham-fisted; I’m willing to take them at their word. And the “PR people” cited were probably outsourced staff on a holiday weekend with little true knowledge of what was happening.

    With the demise of gay and independent bookstores across the country (largely thanks to Amazon, of course), Amazon has become a major source of “edgy” materials (and even sex toys) for hundreds of thousands of people. I can’t see why they would intentionally try to reduce sales in those or any other area. But bitter evangelicals? Sure. They like to control other people’s lives.

  5. ajk says

    If you go to the Amazon homepage, look to the boxed ads to the right, and scroll down a bit, you’ll see they’re advertising Gay Pride Day apparel. How cute.

  6. Kyle Sullivan says

    I don’t think the hacker did it. According to some blogs, this has been building since the first of the year and affected Amazons around the world, not just the US while he seems to be suggesting he started it only recently.

    I know a couple of books I have listed with Amazon were de-listed 10 days ago. They’re back up, partially, but the rankings are still missing. And I got the exact same e-mail from them, this after another guy got an e-mail from the same person a couple days ago that said Amazon was deliberately doing this. Check out http://gawker.com/5210142/why-it-makes-sense-that-a-hackers-behind-amazons-big-gay-outrage for the reactions of other people it’s been done to.

  7. Bill S. says

    I work for a national company, unrelated to Amason, which committed a similar programming error last year. It threw us into chaos, led to an investigation by a state regulatory board, and lot of adverse publicity. The long and short of it was, a programmer screwed up because he wasn’t paying attention to the parameters of what he was supposed to be working on.

    I accept Amazon’s explanation.

    When I read the postings of pygmies incensed that their self-published drivel was delisted and demanding a personal apology and compensation, I have to laugh. There was no conspiracy. There is no cover-up. It was a screw up. Get over it. Move on.

  8. dm says

    If it was an error then why did Amazon tell authors that it was a new policy?

    “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”

    I think Amazon still needs to explain this further.

  9. Carl says

    Yes, I accept Amazon’s explanation too. Obviously the hacker had nothing to do with it: he mentioned only gay books, not all these other categories that were affected. I checked, and indeed almost every book in the category Reproductive and Sexual Medicine was de-ranked. Also, it doesn’t seem possible that a gang of evangelicals launched an attack on 55,000 books, many of which have no perceived objectionable content. So it was just someone’s programming error. This turns out to be a lesson in runaway internet hysteria. A little bit of paranoia at work here too — we’re not always victims.

  10. bobbyjoe says

    Yes, except, again, Amazon knew about these problems at least two months ago. Their explanation is seriously lacking in explaining why they ignored GLBT customers at that time, and let the problem get as far as it did. There were threads even on Amazon itself that dated back from February where customers who had contacted Amazon after noticing that GLBT books were losing their rankings.

    There seems to be selective amnesia about this for those who are willing to immediately buy Amazon’s explanation. Even if this were a “glitch” or a hacker, or whatever, Amazon still hasn’t explained why they ignored or downplayed the original concern from GLBT customers and waited until there was a huge uproar before doing anything significant about the problem.

    The customers on those threads were specifically discussing the de-ranking of GLBT books two months ago and problems with GLBT books and Kindle. Many of them noted they had written to Amazon about the problem. So the question becomes not even WHY this happened, but why Amazon let it get worse and worse for at least two months, particularly as they’d been alerted that there was a potentially serious problem with GLBT books, and only began to take any significant action when the uproar became deafening on the internet. Shouldn’t the heads-up in February gotten them to monitor and correct the situation?

    It’s not just that this started happening last week, nor that it was just now called to the company’s attention. And even if you accept that the e-mail that some authors received about this on “adult policy” was also a rote action, when multiple GLBT customers are writing in about the same potentially serious problem with Amazon’s listings of GLBT books, and Amazon doesn’t begin seriously correcting the problem until two months later, and only after it turns into a major public brouhaha, something doesn’t gibe in their “oops, it’s just an error” explanation: it’s like I compared it to elsewhere, as if you spilled milk in your kitchen and didn’t clean it up and just ignored it for weeks and weeks and only started cleaning it up when your neighbors formed a mob and threatened to have you evicted over the smell (or, really, more as if you kept spilling milk over and over again, as Amazon allowed more and more authors to be de-ranked from February to mid-April).

    It may have affected other categories, but since GLBT customers had called Amazon’s attention to the problem in the GLBT section, the problem shouldn’t have been a complete surprise to them… so why exactly wasn’t Amazon paying attention as more and more GLBT authors found their works stripped of rankings? So far none of the explanations have addressed THAT. It’s almost as though they’d like us not to remember that part of the story.

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