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Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Let amazonfail be a warning

The casual dropping of LGBT titles from Amazon's rankings, sales charts and hence search (and hence visibility) was explicity done to make it more 'family friendly'.

This is clear from their customer services department's initial response:
"In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude 'adult' material from appearing in some searches and bestseller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature," explained "Ashlyn D" from Amazon's member services department.
The politics of this are a bit mad. Amazon has to appeal across the board or it loses a huge customer base. It's also a global company and 'family friendly' does not mean the same here as it does to certain sections of the USA.

They've obviously realised the mistake but the response is telling:
When contacted by the Guardian, an Amazon spokeswoman said that there was "a glitch in our systems and it's being fixed". However, the company refused to elaborate on why that move was made, or how the filter to choose which books were excluded was applied.
The problem is both the filter and the secrecy behind it.

In the Guardian's story one author reports how his memoir was called 'adult' in February; this attitude isn't a new one for Amazon. In a comment on Zoe Margolis' piece an academic author says that her book was listed by Google with another name attached. Google promised to remove it a year ago and it hasn't happened.

Filters will always have 'glitches' but they are almost universally privatised. There's no law or licensing body or any democratic control over them.

As I've written about, this means that, with filters in place, access to knowledge - most concernedly for children - is often barred thanks to both 'glitches' and privatisation rather than public decided morality.

As a knowledgeable adult, I can still find my way around online barriers (though this might change and could change so we end up with a 'national filter' like the Australian government wants, whose breach means breaking the law), but for the less knowledgeable they won't know and for children it takes some guts to stand up and ask 'why is this blocked?'

We need much more debate about who manges filters and why and how the heck we've ended up with a (largely) American bunch of companies deciding what we and especially our kids can and cannot see.


  1. Talking of #amazonfail, I was tempted to blog on it too, but decided to hang on a few days. It would appear to have been a mistake rather than policy, owing to someone on getting confused between 'sexuality' 'erotica' (which are intended to be visible) and 'adult' (porn) which is supposed to be less visible (hence the 'family friendly' tag.

    Given that it's been publicly tagged as a gay thing, it would maybe be appropriate to suggest that this was a bit of a cock-up.

    But as more information emerges, it looks increasingly less like sexuality censorship (although porn censorship, yes)...

  2. Looking at some comments on the story you linked to they again raise the issue of past mistagging and the struggles of authors to get them changed.

    Also, there's the issue of the initial customer services response.

    But there's the bigger issue of our lack of control over the gatekeepers to knowledge.

    I don't think we should just trust the new corporations to 'not be evil' - there should be some democratically decided way of controlling their behaviour as gatekeepers.