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Rhodri Marsden

Journalist and musician Rhodri Marsden has been addressing common technology problems by stripping away the jargon and enlisting the help of readers in his Cyberclinic column in The Independent for the past two years.

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Amazon "censorship": Explanations emerge

Posted by Rhodri Marsden
  • Tuesday, 14 April 2009 at 10:00 am
Following the furore over the deranking of various adult-themed books from Amazon's various websites, it's taken until the end of the Easter break for Amazon to come up with an explanation – leaving plenty of time for people to falsely and anonymously claim that they were responsible.

Seattle PI have had a response from a spokesman; it turns out that 57,310 books had their categories universally altered by a chap working at Amazon France who was tapping away on a keyboard without being quite sure what he was doing. In other words, human error.

Which raises a few interesting issues. The first is put quite neatly over at LawClanger: "If it turns out that such an embarrassing incident could have arisen from a single coding error, and that Amazon's infrastructure allowed the error to pass undetected, propagate around the world and then take days to fix, then it rather makes the world's best-known online ordering brand look like a massive house of cards." (According to another piece over at Seattle PI, employees were firefighting the mess from home on Easter Sunday.)

Secondly, the Amazon policy that led to the books being removed from searches, which was restated over the weekend by customer service reps who were clearly unaware of the scale of the error, is obviously still in force. Various authors of niche adult literature have been complaining about the policy since as far back as February – but as it only affected a handful of books, the complaints weren't widely heard. It'll be interesting to see whether the astonishing outpouring of anger over the policy will continue, now that the likes of Brokeback Mountain have got their rankings back.

But thirdly, and probably most interestingly, is the swirling, unstoppable power of Twitter users once they get a bee in their bonnet about something. For a while on Sunday, it seemed utterly possible that a multinational bookseller had bowed to pressure from the religious right – but in the absence of a clear statement from Amazon (which we now have) the speculation was allowed to spiral out of control. Perhaps Amazon would have done better to use the Twitter medium themselves in order to explain what was happening, rather than allow #amazonfail to become one of the most popular hashtags over the Easter weekend. (Now being replaced, hilariously, with #sorryamazon.) But at the height of the fury, any suggestion that it might be an error rather than an outbreak of New Puritanism were quickly slapped down by those who stated that no, no, this is simply homophobia.

There's no doubt that cyberactivism can be deployed in an endless variety of positive ways. But when fury spirals in this fashion, fuelled almost entirely by other people's fury, at something that was pretty benign, it starts to become incredibly depressing – not least because rational people who would normally rail against hair-brained conspiracy theories suddenly found themselves propagating one.

Of course, you might decide that Amazon's policy still stinks. You might think that Amazon deserves to be boycotted anyway, regardless of its attitude to sexual content of books. But there's no doubt that many people are regretting the amount of emotional energy they poured into #amazonfail, that could have been used to rant about the excessive packaging on their Easter eggs.

Comments

chiller wrote:
Tuesday, 14 April 2009 at 10:08 am (UTC)
I have to disagree. Until it became/becomes established fact that Amazon had de-ranked gay/feminist material by accident, people were/are absolutely right to get their knickers in a twist over it. What's the alternative? Everyone sits idly back and says "hey ho, I'm sure this is all a dreadful administrative mistake and will be rectified shortly"?

As you point out above, the problem in some cases extends beyond the Easter weekend and back as far as February.

Whatever the issue is, I think that everyone who got upset about it and made some noise did a good job, and the fact that so many people are prepared to say that they find this unacceptable is heartening. Even if they only do so within a 140 character limit. ;)

People don't usually jump to conclusions for absolutely no reason: society remains stoutly homophobic, and for that reason, people who are aware of that fact remain ready to bristle at any signs of homophobia. Perhaps in this case it was a false-positive. One hopes so.
rmarsden wrote:
Tuesday, 14 April 2009 at 10:15 am (UTC)
Reading this account from a chap who noticed the anomaly in February (and had his ranking reinstated a few weeks later) there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to the policy at all.
chiller wrote:
Tuesday, 14 April 2009 at 10:24 am (UTC)
Yah, I read that ... who knows - it is easy to get a book de-ranked by flagging it, so maybe the chap had enemies? This site-wide business was more worrying.

I can see why they might want to do it - not lesbian and gay literature, per se - but to prune out material unsuitable for minors. But there are so many better targets than Jeanette Winterson et al.
crocodilewings wrote:
Tuesday, 14 April 2009 at 07:00 pm (UTC)
"What possible reason could there be for you to not email us? Certainly ignorance shouldn’t be a bar. You might not know anything about the issue, but I bet you reckon something. So why not tell us what you reckon? Let us enjoy the full majesty of your uniformed, ad hoc reckon by going to bbc.co.uk/meandmyimportantthoughts (all one word), clicking on ‘What I Reckon’ and simply beating on the keyboard with your fists or head."
chiller wrote:
Tuesday, 14 April 2009 at 07:02 pm (UTC)
Off you go, then.
crocodilewings wrote:
Tuesday, 14 April 2009 at 07:03 pm (UTC)
Oh, touché. ;-)
nudejournal wrote:
Tuesday, 14 April 2009 at 10:35 am (UTC)
The only solution is to destroy France.
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