Amazon Fail.

Amazon is apparently stripping sales ranking indicators from LGBT, sexuality and feminist books — because they are “adult material.” The books are blocked from appearing in some searches, and are prevented from appearing on some best-seller lists.

Here’s a list of books that have been de-ranked (full disclosure: It includes Yes Means Yes, the anthology that Cara and I contributed to). Apparently Heather Has Two Mommies and various lesbian parenting guides are “adult.” Interestingly, books like From the Pit to the Palace: Conquering the Spirit of Homosexuality and A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality are still considered appropriate to be ranked. Jezebel has more on which books were stripped of their rankings, and which ones weren’t.

Check out #amazonfail on Twitter for more.

Thanks to Meredith for sending this on.

Similar Posts (automatically generated):

51 comments for “Amazon Fail.

  1. belle
    April 12, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    This pisses me off to no end. Who should we contact at Amazon to let them know what we think about this??

  2. UnFit
    April 12, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    Wow. I hope you’re going to take down the widgets and send them an angry boycot letter?

  3. April 12, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    Re: the widget — I just saw the thinks to this Amazon stuff in my inbox 10 minutes ago, so the Feministe bloggers have not yet had any conversations about what to do with the widget. That’s why it’s still up. I imagine that will change soon.

  4. April 12, 2009 at 4:57 pm

    People looking for an Amazon alternative for purchasing or linking to books in posts should try Indiebound. You can search for a book among Independent book stores and find one in your area or that will send it to you. Plus, Indie book stores appreciate your business! If Amazon is going to pull this crap, it is nice to have someplace else to take business.

  5. me and not you
    April 12, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    incidentally: (please excuse my inability to format)

  6. me and not you
    April 12, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    okay, apparently I’m not good at this.

    This is what I’m trying to link to:

    I obviously don’t know how to do that.

  7. me and not you
    April 12, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    yeah, I have no idea how that words. Anyway, an explanation:

    (sorry about the multiple posts)

  8. April 12, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    In addition to Yes Means Yes, they’ve also deranked Full Frontal Feminism, presumably because of those dirty and inappropriate F words.

  9. Megan
    April 12, 2009 at 6:31 pm

    How do I complain to Amazon. Anyone know?

  10. April 12, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    There’s a petition here.

  11. April 12, 2009 at 7:23 pm

    Do note that Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf hasn’t lost it’s rank, but then that’s not as dangerous, is it? :/

    This shit is frightening, it truly is.

  12. April 12, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    Amazon executive customer service email is: and the customer service phone number is 1-800-201-7575 if you wish to share your views with them.

  13. Mae
    April 12, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    I can confirm, I tried to search “Yes Means Yes” from the main website. The Kindle version shows up 3rd on the list, no other print shows up on that main search page.

    I already sent an email to close my account, expressing my extreme disappointment in this blatantly homophobic tactic.

    fyi: to close your account or send an email to customer service, you’ll have to go to the help page and from there hit “Contact Us”, which is a button on the middle right side of the Help Page.

  14. April 12, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    Hey, at least Flickr is still helpful about pointing you to certain words:

  15. Whack
    April 12, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    Oh no, let’s make a big deal about something that isn’t even important. Pathetic.

  16. April 12, 2009 at 10:47 pm

    tehdely @ livejournal has a plausible theory.

  17. K
    April 12, 2009 at 10:58 pm

    You can contact Amazon via email or telephone if you have an Amazon account. (I’ve outlined how to find the contact info on my blog if you need help:

    You can sign a petition here:

    You can follow the debacle on Twitter here:

    And here:

    I’ve already emailed and signed the petition. I plan on calling Amazon in the morning.

  18. Laughingrat
    April 13, 2009 at 12:11 am

    Tehdely’s theory, while written carefully, doesn’t take into account the fact that this has been going on since February and that when asked about it, the querent was told it was a deliberate act and part of their new policy.

  19. April 13, 2009 at 2:13 am

    I LOVE how they’re saying it’s a “glitch” now. Hardy har har!

  20. April 13, 2009 at 5:49 am
  21. April 13, 2009 at 6:55 am

    Combining some of the theories, Amazon may have had a policy to hide adult material, intended to be narrowly applied. Thus, the CustSat people were following their assigned script when they gave that information. But trolls found a glitch allowing them to exploit this policy, expanding it to cover materials outside the intended purview of policy.

    I suppose we’ll have to wait until business hours today to find out more.

  22. April 13, 2009 at 7:37 am

    Pretty much what Lis said. Bantown-style meta-trolling tactics don’t work unless there is ALREADY a mechanism for identifying and “cleaning” offensive content. This type of instigation just exploits those mechanisms as well as inexperienced customer service / community relations people who are “following orders” or working off a simple script. So for instance, Mein Kampf may have been flagged as offensive some time ago; it seems unlikely to me that it’s part of an organized campaign to raise the ire of communities.

    It’s not like what’s happening on Amazon isn’t still wrong, but it pays to be aware that it very well could have been orchestrated by a third party who stands to “benefit” more than Amazon or anyone else who’s affected. In any case, it’s enough of a shitstorm that Amazon will probably have to fix it today; they’re already blaming it on a glitch.

  23. April 13, 2009 at 7:46 am

    Relating to what Holly and Lis are saying, I’ll add that, because I was attempting to link to the book somewhere when talking about it, I searched for Yes Means Yes really quite recently on Amazon (i.e. within last 2 weeks for sure), and it came up fine. I can’t vouch for other books or more recently than that, but the point is that, for sure, all of the books that have been affected by this have not been affected since February.

    I spend way, way more money at Amazon than I should. I’m waiting for them to fix this now that the holiday is over and it’s business hours before I go yanking my account. If they decide not to fix it then yes, I am absolutely 100% done with them. Seeing as how even if I wanted to continue with them in spite of this (and I don’t), I wouldn’t be able to find a big bulk of the stuff that I buy from them anymore, anyway!

  24. UnFit
    April 13, 2009 at 8:24 am

    Yes, that’ the thing. If they’re being trolled, they’re handling it extremely badly.
    If the response to the first complaints had been something along the lines of “uh oh, we had no idea this was going on!” I would have an easier time believing in a glitch.

    I’m not a great conspiracy theorist. If they ay it’s a glitch and come up with a reasonable explanation, I’ll believe them.
    But at the moment, it looks at least like a glitch they held the doors open for.

  25. April 13, 2009 at 9:10 am

    This is a predictable situation. Assuming, as I’m willing to do, that this is intended to be a narrow mechanism that is being exploited by conservative activists, that is a completely forseeable turn of events, and I think we should be telling Amazon what a bunch of fools they are for not planning for this, by way of telling other companies that they need to expect that the same kind of obstreperous conservatives will abuse their well-intentioned policies that they need to have a plan in place to deal with it.

  26. April 13, 2009 at 9:11 am

    Well, it’s still 6:46 AM in Seattle and this whole thing basically happened over the holiday weekend. Some people were probably notified about it, but at a company the size of Amazon, there’s no way any major public response (not counting various comments people manage to elicit from customer service, where they’re not likely to know what’s going on or what’s supposed to be going on) can go out without being discussed by PR, legal, various people and departments talking about what the problem is and what the solution is, etc. The “committee problem” of scale. Of course, they could have pulled the internal company fire alarm and yanked everyone away from their easter egg hunts, but I doubt it was considered so important that it couldn’t wait for Monday or Tuesday.

    I can see how something like this could have been designed without thinking about the possible exploits available to a deliberately malicious and organized attack. Amazon wants to be able to sell all sorts of material, regardless of whether some people think it’s offensive or not. There are lines they have to avoid crossing (no Nazi memorabilia or bodily fluids) but other than that, the main problem is dealing with complaints from people who don’t want to see (or heavens, don’t want their children to see) anything they find “objectionable.” One way to do this would be through something like Google’s “SafeSearch.” Anyone who doesn’t want to see Bad Things turns an option on, or vice versa. That’s not exactly Amazon’s style, however; it’s possible they figured their army of smart engineers could be more clever and exclude certain kinds of content from “general searches” unless you’re looking specifically for certain keywords. That’s how their global search seems to work to me, at least.

    Systems like this, designed to protect those who don’t want to see things from seeing them, tend to also involve methods of reporting “gaps” in the system, and sometimes are built largely ON those reports. This is commonly known as “flagging” and most users of big community-enabled websites have probably seen examples. Flagging is basically the lever that Bantown-style exploitation tries to manipulate. Which is why it’s important not to make a stupid flagging system; you can’t just delete anything that someone flags from your site. Ideally, a human being who’s operating on a carefully defined policy, not on personal feeling or (solely) on how many people are complaining, reviews each flag. Of course, that is pretty expensive, especially considering you don’t want them to do it too mechanically; there are ethical considerations of values involved. This is why the Amazon method probably seemed desirable — they are not deleting anything from their store, they are just using “customer feedback” to try and decide what should go in the “discrete shopping” section in the back. And those decisions are either being handled purely by code, or by personnel (especially over the weekend) who are just following a basic set of instructions and haven’t been trained to recognize more systematic problems or ethical concerns that might arise. (Just doing their job, in other words.)

    The funny thing is the sales rank. The real objective of the flagging system for Amazon was to keep “adult” materials out of general search and best-seller lists, for appearance’ sake and to reduce the number of irate “why don’t you think of the children, you hellspawn” phone calls. Now, that may not have been a good idea anyway, and you can argue that they should have gone the SafeSearch route, but the thing that everyone noticed was not the search — it was the sales ranks disappearing!

    From what Amazon customer service has already said, the sales rank effect is almost purely a side-effect. They use sales rank to construct best-seller lists in various categories. They didn’t want “obscene” materials to get included (leaving aside how “obscene” is defined and whether that’s even OK in the first place). Now, they could have built the code so that every book STILL has a sales rank, but so that when the best-seller lists are calculated, some books with sales ranks are disqualified. Instead, they just took the sales rank OFF of any “obscene” titles so that they aren’t in the running at all. Sort of a shortcut. But OOPS, a noticeable one, because the internet of COURSE reacts badly to destruction of data; it’s designed to, socially and technologically. Now the cat is out of the bag and they probably have to revise how all of this works. The whole thing was probably intended to keep them from having to deal with too many irate customers, and now it’s backfired — quite possibly because someone exploited a vulnerability in their flagging system.

    That’s my guess, at least. None of this is really a “technical glitch” like a misplaced semicolon in some programmer’s code or something. It’s all social systems design and unanticipated ways that people can use and abuse them, and maybe a bit of “oh we didn’t think that could happen…” lack of design foresight. I’m not saying I could do any better — hindsight is 20/20.

  27. April 13, 2009 at 9:57 am

    Yes to everything Holly said!

  28. mk
    April 13, 2009 at 11:02 am

    I just found someone claiming credit for the whole thing, but I don’t know enough about code to tell if it could be legit.

  29. anon
    April 13, 2009 at 11:03 am

    Disability topics blocked as well

  30. anon
    April 13, 2009 at 11:04 am

    I actually agree mostly with Holly — however even such a chain of events does not exculpate Amazon from doing a full investigation & apology.

  31. anon
    April 13, 2009 at 11:23 am

    mk@34 — as a long time unix programmer, what’s described there looks perfectly plausible, assuming he was able to rope others in as he claims. He also didn’t describe the html coding that unwitting ppl were using, but given a list of the codes on the books he scrapes via the bash coding, it’s entirely possible.

  32. April 13, 2009 at 11:56 am

    The “I got my friends at many top websites to stick little tiny IFRAMES on their pages” part is the most dubious-sounding to me. Not because it’s technically impossible, of course, that stuff happens all the time, mostly for more run-of-the-mill malicious reasons. I find it hard to believe that he knows that many people who have access to those pages and who would be willing to participate in what’s basically a homophobic lulz prank, possibly at the risk of their jobs. I mean, this isn’t the era of SYSADMIN FROM HELL WHO DOES WHATEVER SYSADMIN WANTS SUDO MAKE ME A SANDWICH anymore. I can believe he would pay some guys in Bangladesh $10 to register 1000s of accounts, though.

  33. April 13, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    The story has made the national news in the UK, it’s featured in the Channel 4 News programme tonight (Monday), and it’s on the Guardian newspaper website.

  34. April 13, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    Some more links of analysis:

    Bryant thinks the brutal honesty post is a load of bull and at the very least, one of the links referenced in that post is no longer live on amazon’s site, or never was;

    Another analysis of how things could have gone wrong with this and why it might take a while to fix

  35. Jha
    April 13, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    And Amazon is calling it an “embarrassing and ham-fisted mistake

  36. April 13, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    I’m gonna quickly spend the $15.10 remaining on my card, and then I’m gonna put it in the shredder.

  37. April 13, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    As a customer service worker, I really wouldn’t put any investment into questioning what customer service did or didn’t say. They’re cogs in the wheel and can only work with whatever’s been given to them by middle management.

  38. April 13, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    Some DVDs have now been de-ranked by Amazon.

  39. Megan
    April 13, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    Hi all,

    Amazon has responded by stating that it was a cataloging error, and a hacker has also taken credit for creating the glitch. I’m not terribly savy about this kind of thing, but it seems a bit fishy, what do other people think?

    Here are a few articles I found links to on Google news:,0,3536538.story
    At the very least, glad to see they are going to correct this.

  40. libdevil
    April 13, 2009 at 11:55 pm

    So a quick search as of right now does show “Full Frontal Feminism” available. Oddly, it’s the 12th hit for that search, but everything else is relevant (two of the hits are other books by Jessica Valenti). Maybe it really as a mistake that they’re fixing, maybe they’re just backtracking. Seems like it’s being reversed in any event.

  41. April 15, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    The thing that really bothers me is that SM ‘critics’ will go out of their way to prove their righteousness. Whether the want to write an angry letter or by announcing that they will “shred their Amazon card” but only after spending the rest on the money on it. The ultimate reality is that in the real-time world we are participating in you have no definitive proof (definitive being key) that the whole #amazonfail fiasco was anything more than an accident. If this was a deliberate orchestration of hatred through the deranking of LGBT books then I would applaud your activism but this whole uninformed knee-jerkreaction is everything wrong with the 2.0 universe.

    If this was a legitimante accident (If being the key) would you retract, delete or even apologize for all of the unfair and untrue things you wrote about the company? Because when you make mistakes you would expect forgiveness wouldn’t you? The next time a situation arises like this I would urge reflection before condemnation. If we expect companies to apologize for their mistakes then we should expect the same from ourselves.

    But again this is all hypothetical. Great Post!

  42. April 15, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    Actually I meant great discussion, not great post. I just noticed that the post was tagged “assholes”. A condemnation before refelction. I wonder if Jill will post an apology if her theory is refuted?

Comments are closed.