Scott Kaiser

New Twists in the Amazon Story

Filed By Scott Kaiser | April 14, 2009 10:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Action Alerts, Entertainment
Tags: Amazon, banned books, boycott, gay authors, gay literature, victimization

Yesterday I posted an article about Amazon.com's hackers.jpgalleged snub of the LGBT community. I suggested that calls of boycott against Amazon were premature as Amazon had up until now been a very gay-friendly company and perhaps this really was a glitch.

Well, last night news was breaking of a blogger who is claiming responsibility for getting the LGBT books delisted from Amazon. Apparently the blogger (with possibly the help of his friends) registered hundreds of accounts on Amazon and then flagged LGBT as "inappropriate" using Amazon's reporting tool. Since different accounts were reporting books as inappropriate rather that just one account, it didn't set off any alarms in Amazon's systems and allowed the hack attack to continue. If this is true, this makes Amazon's claim of a "glitch" causing the problem completely plausible.

While I feel that Amazon should have had a better review process in place before delisting the books, it goes to show that Amazon did not purposely slight the gay community.

Meanwhile, an Amazon employee is giving a behind-the-scenes account of what happened. It doesn't necessarily coincide with the blogger's claim, but it also makes the case for what happened being unintentional. Keep in mind that Amazon wouldn't necessarily want to admit a hack attack. It would shake their image of being a secure place online to shop. They would probably rather claim an internal process error than reveal a successful attack to the public.

Whatever the real reason, Amazon has assured the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation that they will fix the problem according to a statement issued by Neil Giuliano, President of GLADD.

I have updated my last post with the latest developments, but felt I should write this post since many people might not see the updates.

Furthermore I'm asking that if you were one of the people who spread the word about the Amazon story (regardless of whether you called for the boycott), I'm hoping you'll also spread the word about these latest developments as well. Many of you said in the comments of my last post that you have other reasons for disliking Amazon. Fair enough, but I think we owe it to Amazon to tell both sides of the story.


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This doesn't remove the problem, it just focuses the discourse a bit more.

Now the question isn't "Why did this happen?", it's "How did they not notice that books that were clearly not erotic by nature, including children's books and suicide prevention guides, were un-ranked because they're too erotic?"

It's a longer question, but still an important one. Did nobody pick up on the problem because they saw the word "gay" next to the book? My gut tells me that's the reason, and if that's true, we know there's a problem in their system that, for the sake of their business, should be corrected.

It's not a matter of amazon.com intentionally choosing an anti-gay policy, it's a matter of their checks-and-balances system failing to discard preconceived notions from the past that were previously regarded as culturally acceptable.

Scott Kaiser Scott Kaiser | April 14, 2009 11:58 AM

I think Amazon has to tread a very thin line. Since unlike a brick and mortar bookstore they can't try to keep children out of the more mature areas with physical barriers, how do they run a site that is safe for kids while maintaining open access for adults?

Non-erotic gay novels shouldn't be considered unsafe, but realize that some parents may not want their young children seeing gay material of any sorts. We can disagree with those parents (and rightly so), but those viewpoints are still out there.

My guess is that while Amazon hadn't restricted access to LGBT books or anything up until this incident, they did recognize that gay books could be considered controversial (for right or wrong) just as heterosexual romance novels (which also got delisted) might be considered age-inappropriate as well. As such, Amazon most-likely set-up a system to immediately delist these books if anyone complained (as the hacker supposedly did). Another scenario is that these books were flagged as possibly controversial but never intended to be restricted when an Amazon employee accidentally turned on a cataloging filter that delisted them.

Running an online bookstore like Amazon while keeping everyone happy isn't easy, but it is something Amazon needs to figure out. There will be missteps along the way, but given Amazon's gay-friendly positions in the past, I think we owe it to them to explain (quickly) before we take action against them.

I should state that I do think the publicity helped get the situation resolved faster, but I don't think the call for a boycott was prudent. As someone on another Internet forum wrote, "the knee-jerk phenomenon doesn't help us in the long run, because if you go off on the relatively small stuff, when something big happens, political enemies can dismiss it with a "there you go again.""

I'm not buying the hacker thing. It's an easy excuse that lots of people are wont to latch onto, but it was almost immediately discredited by amazon. Plus, you know, hackers lie.

I would point out that unlike a conventional bookstore, kids (and me) can't exactly turn to the trashy parts and giggle in the store. They'd have to buy the book to read the glorious trashiness, and to do that they certify that they are above a certain age. The system already filters out the possibility of 10-year-olds using amazon for porn.

But again, this wasn't a matter of trashy romance novels getting punished. It was Heather Has Two Mommies and Dead Boys Can’t Dance, neither of which could be confuse with smut. The former has literally NO sexual content, and the index of the latter, a book about the connection between homophobia and teen suicide, lists only one page as being related to "sexual activity".

P.S. I wouldn't alter a stance based on reaction of the opposition. They'll say that no matter what we do.

Scott Kaiser Scott Kaiser | April 14, 2009 12:30 PM

Alright, you don't buy the hacker thing. But do you have any proof that it isn't true? To my knowledge no one has yet discredited the hacker's claim of responsibility.

Remember that Amazon isn't the one claiming the hacker thing. They're saying it was an error due to the way they catalog things. If so, Amazon may have a stupid way of cataloging stuff, but it doesn't prove they purposely turned on the filter either.

As I wrote, Amazon has always been a gay-friendly company. I very much doubt that Amazon would be so stupid as to suddenly reverse course and delist LGBT books. Even the most dim-witted among us can see what a PR disaster that would be. I'm not saying corporations aren't capable of such bone-headed moves; I just don't think Amazon made one here.

Yes, Amazon made a very stupid process error and should immediately update their cataloging systems so such an error can not occur again, but that's different than an intentional snub.

"...some parents may not want their young children seeing gay material of any sorts."

Why do those parents' preferences trump mine? I want my children to see the world as it is -- and the world has gay people in it, which is more than fine with me. If those parents want to shield their children from the real world, then it is that parent's responsibility to do so, and that parent should keep that child off Amazon.com. (This is a great business opportunity for someone who wants to set up a head-in-the-sand online bookstore, which only has books of happy things like puppies and rainbows, and those parents can use buy their books from there, instead of Amazon.)

I know this is a little off topic, but still. If we start to take away anything that could be considered controversial, we won't have anything left. Ultimately it is the parents' job to monitor what their children see, and to teach their children how to deal with things that don't want to see or don't agree with. It's called parenting.

Scott Kaiser Scott Kaiser | April 14, 2009 12:40 PM

"Why do those parents' preferences trump mine?"

They didn't per se. Up until this incident Amazon did not filter LGBT books. Still, Amazon might have recognized that there are idiots out there who could raise a stink about certain books (including the romance novels involved) and set up their cataloging system with a flag on these books. Somehow, whether by hacker or a incompetent employee, a filter then got turned on that delisted those books.

As I wrote, I feel that Amazon should have had a better review process in place before delisting the books. Furthermore, Amazon should realize that any flag on non-erotic LGBT books is unnecessary and counter-productive.

I agree that we (as a society) shouldn't restrict access to books, art, etc, just because one group might find it controversial. I don't think that's what Amazon intended to do, but through some bad decisions on how to catalog things, did.

As one of the plaintiffs in 13 years of ACLU litigation against censorship on the Web, I have to say that it's risky for us to go along with the idea that "under-18-safe" areas must be created in online commerce.

The very purpose of all that federal legislation (the CDA, COPA and others) that we fought so hard to defeat was to eventually blur the line between porn and non-porn, or erotic and non-erotic. This way, the religious fanatics who abound in the U.S. can make sure that the most innocuous and non-erotic book mentioning the word "gay" would eventually be considered "harmful" or "indecent" for children to see.

This is because the federal laws allowed for complaints to invoke the principle of "local community standards of morality." Meaning that the stuffiest Bible believer in Arkansas could shut down Amazon sales of not just LGBT material, but books relating to ANY subject that ultraconservative religious people don't want their children to read, like books advocating abortion or birth control or feminism, or books questioning the authority of the Church.

So believe me, if COPA had been allowed to stand by the U.S. Supreme Court last year, we probably wouldn't even be having this discussion. Why? Because Amazon.com would have been one of the first targets of a complaint. Amazon likely would have cut off the sales of ANY books that could be considered "controversial," including all its non-erotic LGBT titles, rather than face federal prosecution, including the super-heavy fines that would be levied.

What WAS established, during this 13 years of fierce litigation, was that parents have a right to install filters on their home computers, so they can control what their children see on the Web. Their own home is the place for parents to do this monitoring. They have no right to try institutionalizing their controls in the marketplace where their cherished beliefs may run counter to the cherished beliefs of others. It should not be Amazon's job to babysit these people's kids and keep them from seeing this and that.

And I trust the good judgment and common sense of professional booksellers like Amazon.com to avoid listing books that are real hard-core pornography. Real porn is clearly defined by existing laws; it is also illegal and has been for a long time. So Amazon can keep porn out of its listings without installing its own censorship system or treading on the toes of any author or publisher whose works have "social or literary value."

Isa Kocher | April 15, 2009 3:00 AM

the idea that children's happening to see something mentioning the existence of queers and faggots is somehow imaginably harmful per se or should be considered harmful per se is arrant nonsense. they see us all the time every day, all over the media universe.

no thin line here. i am a human not a child molester, not the perpetrator here. queers don't eat children, thank you. this was not about the children, but about the systematic denial of our basic decency and humanity per se. it was about basic academic, basic scientific, basic health and safety and wellness resources effecting everyone. Amazon should be protecting me, not the muderers of my sisters and brothers.

no. Amazon should not be in the business of "protecting" children from us. perhaps it should be in the business of protecting children from racist hate, from homophobia, from xenophobia, from the idea that guns are the answer to anything, from sexist exploitative pornography, but no child should ever under any circumstances be "protected" from us, from me.

how damned insulting.

This is a slippery slope. I remain cautious of what the real truth is. It's not good for the story to change, to me, that raises the suspicion a tad. Is it a glitch? Or a right wing nut attack?

Still, I wonder......

This story is interesting, but let's not forget that amazon is anti-union, so, like, it's already the devil.