Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Ham-fisted Glitches

The blogs, Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the cyber world is abuzz about what is happening at one of the world's biggest online retailers, Amazon.com.

Seems back in February, some authors of gay and lesbian themed books found their "sales rankings" dropped and their work tagged as "adult". Classic gay fiction (hardly pornographic at all) such as "Brokeback Mountain", "Giovanni's Room", "The Mayor of Castro Street" and reference books such as "The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students", "Taking a Chance on God: Liberating Theology for Gays, Lesbians, and Their Lovers, Families, and Friends" and "The Dictionary of Homophobia: A Global History of Gay & Lesbian Experience". People were wondering what was up?? These are not "adult" books, full of sex, violence and rock and roll. Strangely, books against homosexuality such as the light hearted "Speechless: Silencing the Christians: How Liberals and Homosexual Activists are Outlawing Christianity (and Judaism) to Force Their Sexual Agenda on America". That book kept its ranking.

The deal with the sales ranking is more than just points on a scale, it helps determine how books are presented in a search. If you search for "homosexuality" the "Speechless.." book would appear first before "Taking a Chance on God". In a sense, a form of censorship.

With more twists and turns than a mountain goat path, the story just would not end. When confronted, Amazon has released a bewildering number of "explanations":

1) Likely a form response from an hourly paid call center employee sent to an author inquiring as to why the rank had been dropped on his book: "In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature."

2) Then the now infamous "glitch" scenario: “There was a glitch in our systems and it’s being fixed,” Amazon’s director of corporate communications reported on Sunday.

3) Then conspiracy theories opined that fundies and anti-gay activists were trying to censor using an Amazon feature that lets people "flag" books for content or review. This seemed plausible to some since the books "fagged' were usually pro-gay, yet anti-gay books were untouched. Besides, the war waged against gays and lesbians here in the US can get pretty ugly.

4) So.... then a hacker, supposedly well known to Amazon and others, comes forth and claims responsibility. The hacker, known as Weev, says that the whole episode his exploitation of a vulnerability in Amazon's product-rating tools. Some others have tried his published code and it did not work, thus some wonder if this is BS too.

5) Almost simultaneously, Amazon said it was not a glitch, really. A lesbian writer contacted an Amazon representative and reported: "Basically he said that amazon has been experimenting with the way they dole out content specifically so that people who are searching Harry Potter or whatever won’t run into links to products that might be offensive.". The Amazon rep said that no human was responsible and that they tweak these things constantly. He was sure it would be corrected.

So for how they are sticking to that story, a "ham-fisted cataloging error", has replaced "glitch".

This whole clusterfuck demonstrates several truths about American society. Our information is not safe from hackers, errors and such, despite assurances from companies, computer experts and even the US Government. IT spotlighted that much distrust remains in the gay/lesbian community towards businesses, government and our "enemies". One thing, still not explained, how come this ham-fisted glitch only affected gay/lesbian titles and those on reproductive health?? See... we are paranoid... and with good reason. It showed, again, the power of bloggers, twitters, Facebookers and other "alternative" media and networks to move and shape news.

I wonder what the real story is????

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