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Amazon in the Hot Seat for Discriminatory Computer Glitch
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April 14, 2009

Amazon in the Hot Seat for Discriminatory Computer Glitch

By Susan J. Campbell, TMCnet Contributing Editor

Amazon is under fire for what appeared to be a discriminatory computer glitch. An apparent cataloging error had caused more than 57,000 books on the company’s site to lose their sales rankings and become harder to find during a search.

While Amazon claimed the error affected several broad categories including books on health and reproductive medicine, the New York Times highlighted that online critics saw a problem that pointed toward censorship. The problem seemed to have an impact on an overwhelming number of gay and lesbian themed books.

As Amazon reported merely a “glitch in our system” and declined to offer any further information, the offended took matters into their own hands to find reason behind the error. Theories abounded on sites like Twitter where users pushed the Amazon failure to the top of the rankings on the site to draw in more users.

The problem gained widespread attention after Mark R. Probst, the author of “The Filly,” a gay western romance targeted at young adults, posted on his blog that several gay romances had lost their sales rankings on Amazon. When Probst e-mailed Amazon, the response he received said the company was excluding “‘adult’ material from appearing in some searches and best-seller lists.”

Probst stated that he believed the error to be just an error and did not hold Amazon liable for malicious conduct. On Monday, others were not so forgiving, pointing to the fact that the words gay and lesbian were clearly flagged in association with pornography. Other books with (heterosexual) sexually and violently explicit content did not lose their sales rankings.

Some authors and playwrights were incensed enough to start a petition to boycott Amazon as a result of its error. In light of the correction on the site, the boycott has been shelved for now, but the move has heightened attention towards Amazon and its treatment of all books.

Others in the industry are surprised that Amazon had such a passive response to the glitch that started a massive public outcry. For a site that is considered a leader in the digital age, Amazon had an opportunity to reclaim its glory, yet allowed the audience to form their own opinions.

In an e-mail featured in a Wall Street Journal report, Drew Herdener, Amazon’s director of communications wrote: "This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.

"Many books have now been fixed and we're in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future," added Mr. Herdener.

For those that were hoping the light shone on the issue would force Amazon to provide more answers, they will have to continue to wait as the Internet giant is still not talking. Perhaps a continued focus on positive movement within the company will be enough to move public opinion onto bigger and better things – at least they can hope.

Susan J. Campbell is a contributing editor for TMCnet and has also written for To read more of Susan’s articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Jessica Kostek

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