Dear Amazon

13Apr09

I am writing to express my displeasure that your website has dropped a large number of books related to LBGT issues from your sales rankings. I understand that this is purportedly to remove “adult” content from easy view. However, I find it profoundly disturbing that Amazon feels that books like “Daddy’s Roommate” by Michael Willhaite and “How it Feels to Have a Gay or Lesbian Parent” by Judith E. Snow should be excluded from bestseller lists and some search results, while “A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality” by Joseph Nicolosi, not to mention “Playboy: The Complete Centrefolds”, are deemed appropriate to keep their rankings.

I find this apparent attempt to make those books expressing a positive view of LBGT people and lifestyles less visible to your customers deeply offensive. Until Amazon both ceases to marginalise members of the LBGT community and the authors writing about and for them, and issues a full apology for the offence caused, I will not be placing any more orders through Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.co.jp (all of which I have used in the past).

Yours faithfully,
Laura

[The links above are not to Amazon’s page on the named books, for obvious reasons.]

Play along at home: write your own!

I sent this through the comments sections on the UK and Japanese sites, and to connect-help at amazon.com. With a little luck, the massive negative reaction to this new policy will force a rethink, an apology, and the unceremonious firing of whoever came up with this stupid idea in the first place. If not, I’ll just have to resign myself to making the occasional trip to Osaka or Kobe for their decent English-language bookshops. It’s less convenient for me than ordering through Amazon, but I’d rather give my money to companies without bigoted policies.

So far, I’ve received an automated response from the direct email address:

Thank you for your interest in Amazon Connect. Due to the high volume of emails we are receiving, you can expect a response to your email within 2 to 3 business days.

Sincerely,

Your Friends at Amazon Connect

I imagine they’re receiving an unusually large number of emails right now.

Update: A reply from Amazon:

Thanks for contacting us. We recently discovered a glitch in our systems and it’s being fixed.

I hope that you will give us another opportunity to prove the quality of our service to you.

Update: There’s a few possible explanations of how this happened at Broadsheet:

It appears that all the content that was filtered out had either ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘transgender’, ‘erotic’ or ‘sex’ metadata categories.

Plausible, though in that case it’s suspicious that books like “A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality” weren’t flagged. I’m awaiting a statement from Amazon with interest.

And I’ve just noticed the signature on the email I received from Amazon last night:

Amazon.com
We’re Building Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company

Probably true, if the customer in question is a homophobic transphobic bigot.

Update: Amazon has issued 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.

So they are reversing the change. But there’s no statement on why it was made. I’m not convinced that it was purely a “cataloguing error” – it was too well targeted for that. I think an entirely external attack can be ruled out too – too many books slipped through the net (different editions of the same book, for example).

My personal theory is that they were experimenting with removing adult content from rankings, and that someone at some level decided that, for example, the word “gay” was synonymous with “obscene”. This lead to all books with that tag being targeted. Which is at best shockingly ignorant.

There’s been no apology either. I’m surprised one hasn’t been given at least to the authors affected, so I don’t think this is the last we’ll hear. I’m prepared to wait for further statements, but I’m not making any purchases in the meantime.

Update: An apparent explanation from an insider:

I’ve spoken to an Amazon.com employee who works closely with the systems involved in the glitch. The employee asked me not to share his name because of company policies on talking with the media.

Amazon managers found that an employee who happened to work in France had filled out a field incorrectly and more than 50,000 items got flipped over to be flagged as “adult,” the source said. (Technically, the flag for adult content was flipped from ‘false’ to ‘true.’)

That’s plausible. But at the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, which field? Who conflated “gay” with “erotic”, causing both these tags to be affected? I’m still not quite convinced. And it doesn’t explain the initial emails explaining the change as a policy change.

I’ve worked with computer programs, and I know that finding and correcting errors can be a complete nightmare. I imagine Amazon programmers are working a lot of overtime right now. So I’m waiting for a fuller explanation.

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2 Responses to “Dear Amazon”

  1. 1 Conservative Underground

    Amen Amazon – I will buy everything from you now!!!

  2. 2 Laura

    You’re entitled to your own opinion, of course.

    I’d be interested to know if Amazon orders dropped over the last weekend compared to Easter last year. I suspect the effect from people who aren’t currently planning to buy anything from them again more than outweighs the effect of people planning to give them their full support.


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