Amazon’s Response Raises Security Questions
April 14th, 2009
Amazon’s de-ranking of LGBT-themed books generated a host of competing theories of what happened. Amazon’s first response to inquiries, which labeled LGBT books as “‘adult’ material,” suggested that the de-ranking was intentional. That response was followed by another one, blaming the whole mishap on a “glitch,” a dubious term that continues to be inserted inside of quotation marks everywhere.
Meanwhile theories have flooded the ‘net, with some suggesting that it was the result of a coordinated outside attack by shadowy anti-gay groups “flagging” LGBT-themed books for objectionable content and watching Amazon’s automated systems taking over from there. There was even one hacker claiming credit for the chaos.
But now more recent statements from Amazon officials and Amazon insiders sheds more light on the “glitch.” Here is their official respons
This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.
It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles – in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search.
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.
The Seattle Stranger blog has more inside information, indicating that it was a badly written and tested piece of code that was inserted into Amazon’s software. Apparently, the French software developer mixed up “adult” with “erotic” and “sexuality,” and that ended up garbling the whole thing. As a software developer myself, I can see how this sort of thing can happen when there is little oversight in testing candidate code changes.
But that is worrisome. Responsible and well-managed software outfits always make sure there are proper peer reviews and rigorous software testing before software is released for public use. A bug like this could have been easily detected during peer reviews, and should have been caught during software regression test. Neither of these two very fundamental steps, it appears, were taken. Or if they were performed — and I have a very hard time imagining a peer review letting this sort of error go undetected — they were performed poorly.
And it’s not just Amazon customers who should be concerned. Amazon Associates, publishers, and used bookstores all trust Amazon with financial transactions. Bookstores, in addition, trust Amazon to properly list and promote their inventory as well. What assurances do they have that a similar “glitch” won’t adversely affect their businesses?
It would almost be better for Amazon, its customers, and associate businesses and individuals if this whole episode had been an anti-gay conspiracy.