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Amazon Rank/Amazon Fail part 3

The latest on Amazon Rank...

Oh Joy, so now it looks like:

1) Over 50K books (yes, fifty thousand) might have been affected
2) Amazon is going through and restoring rankings, but apparently to the most high profile books/authors first, so unless people stay on their case, lots of other authors and books could stay delisted
3) Still no explanation or apology from Amazon.

Get the details over at meta_writer here.

Come ON Amazon. Could you PLEASE tell us WTF is going on and what you're doing to fix it (and preferably, what you're doing to make sure it doesn't happen again)?? Thanks!

ETA: Apparently now a hacker is trying to claim responsiblity: www.pcworld.com/article/163024/hacker_claims_credit_for_amazons_gaythemed_book_glitch.html.
Ok, so, Amazon, is there truth to this? It's entirely plausible & the sudden disappearance of Amazon's "report inappropriate content" button, suggests there may be merrit to this.  I know getting hacked might be embarassing, but it would surely be favorable to say, looking generally incompetent, lazy, homophobic, etc., right?

ETA2: Taking 10 seconds to think about it, I'm not really convinced by the Hacker's claims; or rather, even if the hacker is telling the truth, that doesn't excuse Amazon's behavior (really, you just don't *check* things that get marked as adult content???????).  It doesn't address or fully explain: 1) Amazon's ridiculously vague and problematic "adult" policy that has existed for a long time. 2) Incidents of LGBT authors getting de-listed back in feburary.

If this escalation of the situation was caused by a hack, it still doesn't solve the underlying, vague policy Amazon apparently has had at least since 2008.



( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 13th, 2009 11:04 pm (UTC)
And Amazon should have realised a LOT earlier what was happening to their server if their website was getting hacked.

People complained before and no one looked into it? Right.

I'll check out that link about the hacker...
Apr. 14th, 2009 01:51 am (UTC)
Possibly my longest answer ever? (It will be in several parts 'cause it's too long)
Well, from the article about the hacker, it seems like they were exploiting the "report inappropriate conduct" feature on Amazon, and that this feature, if clicked a relatively miniscule number of times could in and of itself, without further review, "de-list" a book on Amazon.

So, if that's the case, Amazon really might not have realized they were getting hacked (especialy since it was timed over a holiday weekend). However... again, that doesn't quite answer things...

If you look at the timeline on one of the links meta_writer has, in addition to the author who reported problems with his book mysteriously ending up on the "adult" list in February, several other writers started reporting and noticing problems around the middle of last week--and started asking/complaining about what was happening, this was before the "holiday weekend" went into effect, so Amazon workers and higherups should have still been at work to respond.

After much thinking it seems that the hacker's story is plausible if the following scenario (or some variation of it is true):

You're Amazon. You're worried about getting fined for having "inappropriate" material available to children, and you want to make it easy on your customers to report inappropriate stuff and quickly remove it. So, you get the bright idea to set up a "report inappropriate content" button (*note: I don't shop Amazon for non-book items enough to know if this button was available for all categories of items, or just books) and link it to a counter. Enough people click the button and say, maybe pass a test to verify that they're not a bot (you know, the kind of test where you have to type in the squiggly letters), and it trips a switch that marks a product as "adult" and strips it of its sales rank (which in turn removes it from best seller lists). You don't want to set the counter too low, say at 1 report of inappropriate content, but you are also trying to play it safe, so you don't set it too high either. After all, if a few people or maybe a few dozen or few hundred people are saying something's adult, they must be correct, right?

If that's the case, then why wouldn't someone (say some Amazon employee) catch these books (or possibly other items) that are being screened and investigate them and see if they really have adult content? Or maybe notice that literary classics, books that are clealy children's books, history books, and all kinds of other things are winding up on the "adult" list? Or maybe pick up on the suspicious trend of the viewpoint of the books winding up on the "adult list"? Well, one possible answer, which might be supported by Craig Seymour's story of what happened to him in February is that Amazon setup the system without any review mechanism to verify the content was "adult."

Shocking? Sadly, not really. Books are long. They have a lot of words. Words that can be interpreted lots of different ways. On top of that, American society (and to a lesser extent, the rest of Western culture) has a lot of trouble figuring out what "adult" is. This seems to be both evidenced and exacerbated by Amazon's apparent lack of a definition (at least one that was accessible or known to the public, authors, retailers, etc.) of "adult" material and content. If you require an automatic, routine review of everything that gets flagged as adult, that’s going to take a lot of manpower, time, effort, and money to cover. After all, these are the types of nuanced determinations that it is difficult to get a computer to make for you.
Apr. 14th, 2009 01:51 am (UTC)
Re: Possibly my longest answer ever? (It will be in several parts 'cause it's too long)
For example, it’s not going to be easy to write a program that can make the determination that a book discussing human anatomy and physiology, which might include lots of “graphic” words is not “adult” while concluding that the same words in the context of a pornographic novel maybe merit the classification of “adult.” As a result Amazon might depend on authors challenging the classification of their material as adult to remove any erroneously included material from the “adult” classification. This may be what happened to Craig Seymour. He discovered his sales rank was gone. He asked what was up. They explained that they don’t include a sales rank on “adult” material. He said “hey my book’s not adult” and then Amazon took the time to actually investigate and make a decision. Which apparently took a month. Now, I’m not sure that *is* what happened there, but that’s one hypothesis which would explain the facts. From Amazon’s perspective this would be a pretty cheap solution. If someone really “cares” about it, they’ll squawk to Amazon. Then Amazon has conflicting evidence (i.e., an assertion of “not adult”) and that makes the cost-benefit analysis come out in favor of doing the investigation. But if no one says anything, they figure the material really *is* adult and/or no one cares, and as far as they’re concerned, this is OK, because they’re covering their butts, keeping the “sensitive” customers happy, and clearing things up when there’s an actual dispute about the “adultness” of a book.

Amazon might also employ some sort of periodic review of their “adult” classifications to make sure any wrongly included items get their sales ranks restored, but say, have a long enough lag time between reviews that it could take a month or more for such mistakes to be found and corrected.

If either version of this scenario is true, then this could be what happened. Back in February, perhaps there were enough people independently disapproving of Craig Seymour book’s content to click the “inappropriate” box and knock him onto the “adult” list. Or maybe this is a test case on the part of the hacker and/or his alleged enlisted co-conspirators. Either way, Mr. Seymour does get his ranking back, but only after Amazon spends a month doing its investigation or something. Then, a few days before Easter/Passover Weekend, the hacker enlists minions to try this out. A few authors notice strange shenanigans with their book rankings ahead of time and start complaining. Of course, judging by Mr. Seymour’s experience, Amazon takes about a month to clear these disputes up, so nothing happens before the weekend. Then everyone goes home for the Holiday, Amazon’s got a skeleton crew on staff, their bigwigs are home feasting with their families, and ka-bam, the hacker and his minions hit and hit hard. People start squawking, but no one knows what’s happening, and without the presence of bigwigs to say, catch on that something’s going a bit odd (judging by the number of sudden complaints over disputed “adult” content and delisted books), the customer service reps are left to issue out their stock responses and the rest is history.

See, that could totally be what happened. If that’s the case though, that doesn’t mean we should give Amazon a break. Why? Because there’s a whole lot of other big-picture things just really wrong with this scenario. ( To be clear, I am only asserting the following if the preceding are true. No Amazon, I’m not trying to defame you. )

Edited at 2009-04-14 01:52 am (UTC)
Apr. 14th, 2009 01:52 am (UTC)
1) Amazon was on notice that its “adult” policy was sweeping in things that didn’t belong in that category. There was a report last SUMMER that Amazon’s adult policy was blacklisting lots of erotica books with no clear criteria on what made them “adult” or not. Then in February we have another instance of an author challenging and proving that his book had been inappropriately categorized. There were probably other authors who did the same. So, Amazon would have known that its system could and was being misapplied, and yet it seems to have done nothing to stop it.

2) Once an incredibly low threshold was met, this combination of policy and procedure presumed that content was adult, and put the burden on the Author to prove otherwise. Considering the nuanced and sometimes subjective nature of such a classification, the potential ease of abuse or accidental misuse of the system, and the apparent lack of timely automatic review (moreover, that the presumption of “adult” content was applied without any evaluation or review), this suggests that there is a high risk that material will be misclassified and that their entire system can be easily gamed (as it very well may have been). Imagine the uproar from the religious right if some group of people had gone through and systematically clicked the “report inappropriate content button” until all the books addressing Christianity, god, Jesus, Evangelism, and Republicans had been listed as adult!! Oy, the horror. As a large, responsible, trusted retailer, as a general rule, you don’t want policy/procedure/technology interactions that lead to the possibility of easy hacking, frequent errors, and limited accountability or error checking. That kind of thing can spell disaster!

3) The policy is irresponsible. Without a definition for “adult” and without directly notifying authors that their content has been *marked* as adult or accused of being inappropriate, you have a few problems. 1) You further limit your check on the system to make sure you’re not de-ranking non-adult books (if the author doesn’t realize what has happened or isn’t sure what the problem is, they can’t exactly contest it). 2) You are unfair to your authors and publishers whose work you are distributing supposedly on a fair and equal basis. Authors and publishers are under the impression that their sales rank will be listed; they know retailers may look at this to make decision; they also expect consumers to see this and for their works to show up on best seller lists if they sell well enough. If you have a policy that automatically strips some authors/books/publishers of these privileges and terms of service without giving them notice. If they do figure out what’s going on, they don’t have a definition of what is and isn’t adult to use to make their case; thus, making it that much harder (no pun intended) to prove any given book *isn’t* adult.

4) Why the cagey response? Really? Honestly I’m far more likely to forgive a company that makes a mistake that is honest, owns up to it, and explains what they’re trying to do to fix it or even why it happened. How difficult would it be for Amazon to say “sorry, our bad, it looks like we might have been hacked,” or “it appears that the “glitch” might have been caused by a concerted effort to exploit a function of our interface that was designed for consumer protection”? Or even just “there’s a problem and we’re still trying to get to the root of it; we’ll let you know when we’ve got everything fixed and how we’ll keep it from happening again?” Why instead the cagey response, avoiding comment, and semi-denying the whole “adult” policy thing? That kind of behavior doesn’t sit well with consumers. Especially if we fear that we’ve been wronged, it tends to make us feel like we’re being condescended to. It sounds deceitful and doesn’t make us likely to trust you. After all, if you can’t be up front about this, why should we trust you with our money and our business?

Edited at 2009-04-14 02:00 am (UTC)
Apr. 14th, 2009 02:00 am (UTC)
5) If you’re really so concerned about “adult” material, then why not actually develop some criteria to screen the stuff that is actually patently adult (at least arguably)? If your answer is “well we really don’t want to censor things if they’re not a problem,” bad answer. If you want to actually be fair to consumers and authors and publishers and everyone else who you’re doing business with, it would be really nice if you could do so in such a way that doesn’t let individuals’ prejudices affect everyone else; Sure, you can refuse service to anyone and discriminate however you choose, but a lot of us sure aren’t going to want to do business with you if you take that tack. Not to mention, if you’re freaked out about fines and the like, then why not cover your but by censoring the dildos, butt plugs, and Playboy (no offense to dildos, butt plugs, and Playboy, I think all three can be quite nice, but at least I get the argument if you’re marking them as “adult”) rather than leaving it entirely up to the whims of your bigoted and opinionated customers (and then not employing any sort of check on the process?
Apr. 14th, 2009 01:21 am (UTC)

I have no confidence in them now...

*hugs you*
Apr. 14th, 2009 01:55 am (UTC)
I know, it's so distressing. If you want a really freaky sort of thought experiment (well freaky for me, since it gets my lawyerly brain all in a twist) see my really long 3-part comment response to engel's comment. *sigh* I really hope Amazon wan't just letting books pop on the "adult" list without any review. That would just be really, really disappointing to me as a human being.
Apr. 14th, 2009 02:05 am (UTC)
I saw it and there is one thing about Amazon that really bothers me. Yes, they WERE put on notice about this a month ago - two, they have a different response every time they are contacted. First it's a 'sorry, you are a bad influence and we won't rank you' response, then 'sorry, we glitched' now it's 'sorry, we've been hacked'? Bullshit, pure and simple. Amazon and other corporate giants have pulled crap time and time again - and they are now finding it hard to extricate themselves from problems that they have created, BECAUSE they have done it so many times. Does that makes sense? Anyway, with the economy as tight as it is and how people have become so sensitive about all issues that can be defined as prejudiced - Amazon has really stepped in it this time!

*Smishes you tight*
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )


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