Friday, April 24, 2009

#AmazonFail: Amazon gets burned on filtering; lesson learned?

Amazon got a quick lesson in the problems that accompany filtering recently, as their attempt to make search results inoffensive offended and outraged thousands of people. Amazon hasn’t yet made it clear whether they intend to abandon filtering altogether, or simply try to fix their process.

In case you missed it, Amazon has been classifying certain books as ‘adult products.’ An Amazon customer service rep explained via email to author Mark R. Probst that “[i]n 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.”

In February, Craig Seymour noticed that his memoir of being a stripper in gay clubs in Washington, D.C. was no longer showing up in searches, and had its sales rank removed. While his title was eventually restored, by April 12th over 50, 000 books had been impacted, including Brokeback Mountain, Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, Heather Has Two Mommies, and False Colors The fact that books of Playboy centerfolds and memoirs of straight sex workers were not impacted led many to conclude that gay and lesbian titles were specifically targeted. In fact, the top results for searches on the keyword ‘homosexuality’ were titles on preventing and curing homosexuality. News spread like wildfire around the Internet over the weekend, most notably via hundreds of twitter messages a minute tagged #AmazonFail – now a synonym for the whole incident.

In a statement that was not at all reassuring for people concerned with filtering, Amazon spokesperson Drew Herdener asserted that it was not just homosexuality that was targeted, but also material in categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. Indeed books like The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability were also reportedly affected.

Ultimately, Amazon faulted employee error in conflating the concepts of ‘adult,’ ‘erotic, and ‘sexuality’ causing books to inappropriately be removed from rankings and search results.

While this explanation satisfies some who were worried about an anti-gay agenda at Amazon (and doesn’t satisfy others who see many unanswered questions), it still leaves open the idea that some books that Amazon sells are appropriately filtered from sales ranks and recommendation features.

Libraries learned long ago that attempts to narrowly filter a category of material that someone finds offensive quickly winds up blocking access to materials that virtually everyone agrees should not be filtered. Obviously, Amazon does not have the ethical responsibilities of a library. That’s why libraries remain more interesting and more integral to democratic society than bookstores. But while Amazon certainly has the right to limit its selection, search results, and recommendations by any criteria it wishes, much of its appeal is that Amazon can carry everything, unlike a physical bookstore that is limited by space concerns. If Amazon sabotages its own search and recommendation systems, it looses much of that appeal.

It is unclear why Amazon would need to filter ‘adult’ products. Customers are required to be adults, and it seems that a truly explicit thumbnail image of product description would be rare enough to be handled on a case by case basis.

Amazon should, in consideration of their entire customer base, offer full search and discovery options for all the products they sell. -David Hurley

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