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Censorship in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

PUBLISHED: April 14, 2009

Bloggers, Twitter users, and a few journalists have been fulminating lately over the revelation that Amazon has allegedly maintained a practice of de-ranking purportedly adult material.

First, a couple definitions are in order: to de-rank on Amazon—at least in this context—is to remove a sales ranking for a book and, in some cases, to remove the book from search results entirely. (According to the web giant, search results depend on the use of sales rankings.) The second definition: “adult” for Amazon seemingly means titles with gay/queer content or works that have simply been tagged with the word “gay” or “homosexuality.” The result is that books like an Ellen DeGeneres biography or Lady Chatterley’s Lover have been de-ranked. (Jezebel is keeping a list of numerous de-ranked/de-listed titles.) The irony is obvious and rampant: many seemingly innocuous titles are categorized as adult and are very difficult to find on Amazon, while explicitly anti-homosexuality books, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and sex toys are easily searchable.

Explanations from Amazon have been few, vague, and conflicting. Author Craig Seymour asked Amazon in February why his memoir, All I Could Bare: My Life in the Strip Clubs of Gay Washington, D.C., had no sales ranking and was unavailable in search results. Seymour had to send at least six e-mails to various customer service representatives and never received a clear response, but eventually, the sales ranking reappeared, as did the ability to find the book in search queries. When Mark Probst made a similar inquiry about the disappearance of hundreds of LGBT books from search results, including his own, he received a generic response about Amazon’s practice of excluding adult materials from search results “in consideration of [their] entire customer base.” Later, an Amazon spokesperson blamed a glitch and promised that the error would be fixed. Yet, as of Monday evening, many titles remain de-listed.

The central question, of course, is whether Amazon is engaging deliberately in homophobic, discriminatory behavior. Why block an Anais Nin title but not A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, which is, as of this writing, the first result in an Amazon search query for the word “homosexuality”? To uncover whether or not this is truly a glitch may be impossible; it would likely require Amazon to open up their system, including their site’s architecture and coding practices, to an extent with which they’re not comfortable. There have been some interesting pieces published about how a foreign coder’s misunderstanding of the word “adult” may have contributed to a legitimate glitch, as well as an informal investigation into how metadata (keywords associated with web pages) may be used to categorize—and discriminate against—certain titles. There’s also a claim of a hack being used to cause the mess, and the resultant security issues may account for Amazon’s lack of communication. The main takeaway: Amazon’s proprietary systems are interconnected, complex, and shrouded in secrecy, making the process of coming to an objective, independent truth nearly impossible—even the company’s often-cited (and here contentious) review rankings are based on an unknown formula.

Amazon is scrambling, and it may be a day or two before a more thorough explanation arrives. (It’s possible that the prominent “Kindle 2 Has Arrived” ad on the Amazon home page will be replaced with an explanatory letter from Jeff Bezos or another executive.) So far, net denizens are largely unconvinced, and petitions, calls for boycotts, blog posts, tweets, and other postings skew towards calling Amazon out for malicious behavior. The entire process is certainly suspicious, and the company’s obfuscation has not helped its cause.

Until more information arrives, whether from Amazon or independent investigations, it’s useful to examine the anatomy of this controversy. The high-speed, broad-spectrum communicative abilities of Twitter created an echo chamber in which this dispute built in volume quickly, with more voices constantly added, providing outrage, more revelations of de-listing, and more intermittently useful information. Similarly, prominent bloggers and industry publications like Publishers Weekly have extensively linked to each others’ posts while also providing contact information for Amazon representatives and continual updates on individual efforts to find more information or establish a broad base of protest. And through it all, this controversy developed very quickly, gaining momentum by the hour—perhaps too quick a pace for a giant company like Amazon to respond authoritatively, clearly, or even honestly.

While it’s appropriate to call for a measure of patience before establishing anti-Amazon boycotts, it may be that the very impatience and frenetic rise to fury of the digital class will produce a response—again, objective truth may be too much to hope for—that, in a previous era, would have been long in waiting—if appearing at all. (It should be noticed that Amazon has been the subject of several scandals in recent years, particularly for mistreating warehouse employees, allegedly bullying small publishers, and attempting to force sellers of print-on-demand books to use Amazon’s own BookSurge POD service.) We need this grassroots outrage and the passionate search for truth it produces. Newspapers, despite their struggles, still have a vital role to play in checking those in power, but consider that in recent years, several important cases of internet censorship or malfeasance have been uncovered and publicized by amateurs. It was an insomniac engineer named Robb Topolski who found that Comcast was blocking file-sharing applications. It was bloggers and public interest groups advocating internet neutrality who raised the alarm on AT&T’s troubling censorship of a Pearl Jam performance.

In an age when phone and internet providers—increasingly, they are the same, as is the manner of delivering such data—collude with government spy agencies to provide information about Americans; when Yahoo’s collaboration with the Chinese government helped to put a dissident in jail, it’s more important than ever to retain vigilance and skepticism towards those who provide us data, information, and products over the internet. Even so, that skepticism must be paired with patience, self-questioning, perspective, and a focus on hard evidence. If the accusations against Amazon are true, the company’s actions are despicable and discriminatory, but not every case is equal—no one’s life has been ruined here, unlike in the Yahoo incident—and this debacle should be treated on its own merits without being subsumed into the potentially deafening mass of the same Twitter-sphere that helped to bring it to light.

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